Teaching old dogs new tricks

by richard on September 3, 2010

IMG 3873 225x300 Teaching old dogs new tricks

Here’s some good news for all those folks trying to make a new start in life.

I went to a session at the Melbourne Writers Festival last week, where Norman Doidge was speaking about his book, documentary, and studies about ‘neural plasticity’ (don’t you just love that term? Try throwing it into a conversation next time you’re at a party!). The book is called ‘The Brain That Changes Itself’, and is an amazing read.

It’s only in the last 40 years or so that scientists have actually worked out that the brain can rewire itself throughout your life. This is significant in a lot of ways, but a great example is where a stroke patient who may have severely damaged the area of the brain that manages movement in the right arm, can re-program other parts of the brain to do that job. Prior to this, it had always been thought that the brain is hard wired – once the roles for each region are defined, they cannot be changed. If that area of the brain were damaged, the patient would never regain proper use of that arm. Norman cites some amazing research, rehab programs and results that demonstrate this remarkable ability, and how people have retrained their brains to perform everyday tasks they thought were lost to them forever.

What does this mean for the rest of us? As we learn something new, maybe music, a language, or a physical skill, the process is invariably a struggle in the beginning. Overtime though, the brain starts to form new connections between neurons, and whole regions can be called upon to manage this new activity. So as we learn to do something new, our brain actually changes to accommodate the new learning. Isn’t that cool?

So the great news is, you can teach an old dog new tricks. Your mind can take on a new career with a different skill set, and in fact it will relish in the process. Norman also cites some studies where actively pursuing new skills later in life can lower your brain age by as much as fifteen years. So starting a new career could actually make you feel younger!

I’m working on exercising my brain every day with my writing. In fact, neural plasticity is an important element in my second techno-thriller book, which I am writing at the moment. I look forward to sharing more of that with you soon.

The photo above is of guide dog puppy in training ‘Hurley’. We were given the privilege of choosing a name for him, and thought of Frank Hurley (we needed to chose an ‘H’ name as he is from the ‘H’ litter), the photographer who accompanied Shackelton on his expedition to Antarctica.

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{ 2 comments }

Mel September 16, 2010 at 10:34 am

Thanks for sharing – I *really* have to read that book – very cool stuff. Still need to finish the other psych book I’m in the middle of first though…I’ll get there!

Good inspiration to pick up something new. Maybe I can learn maths or how to read maps – that part of my brain lays dormant! ;)

Love the pic of Hurley too, what a cutie!

richard September 16, 2010 at 1:08 pm

When you pick something “new” to do, it should be very new to you, and hard to master – that’s what makes the brain work harder! The good thing about learning to “read maps”‘ is that it is a skill that will serve you well in life!

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