Neuroplasticity – How to Teach an Old Dog New Tricks

Written by Ignatius Harling

Have you ever wondered why so many of the things you do seem to happen automatically? Whether you're driving your car, brushing your teeth, playing tennis or even tying your shoelaces; the body just seems to pull it all together.

Think about it: can you remember the first time you sat in the driver's seat? The first time you struggled with that fiddly, complicated two stage process of tying shoelaces? The first time you do anything, your brain is creating a template so that it can remember how to repeat the action. The action itself is then compared to the rehearsal template, with 'mid course corrections' being added via the senses. That's why we are all so clumsy at first with a new skill. There is no template. Not only that, but in order to build a template which will accurately reflect the complexity of the task, we must make numerous attempts as well. In a sense, we must rehearse the rehearsal.

Learning a skill – and yes, picking up a coffee mug is a skill, and one which requires advanced robotics to imitate – establishes new and permanent neural pathways in your brain. Your neurons rewire themselves into new configurations. The skill, once mastered, can be added to your repertoire for all time.

The really interesting part is that motor and cognitive skills can be learned at any time during the human life cycle. Recent research has indicated that neuronal cells remain supple and agile long after other parts of you have headed south.

So whether it's learning a language, playing the piano, or even changing a persistent pattern of thinking, your brain is going to be up for the challenge. Unless of course you're literally an old dog, in which case you wouldn't be reading this anyway. Pedigree Chum, anyone?