Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks

old dog

I’ve been thinking recently about the saying, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” How depressing! Maybe it’s just because I’m getting older, but I really don’t want to be that dog!

Multiple brain studies confirm that during our lifetimes there are two great bursts in brain development. One is between birth and age 3 – during this time the brain is dense with neurons and primed to make synaptic connections. As the young child gets older, the brain begins its pruning process by getting rid of the connections it doesn’t routinely use. As another famous saying goes, “If you don’t use it you lose it”…very true for young brains. During adolescence, there is another great period of brain development. Last year I wrote a post about the Adolescent Brain with information from Dan Siegel’s recent book Brainstorm. Feel free to check it out for more information on teenage brain development.

But what about our adult brains? I love learning about education and what we (as educators and parents) we can do to optimize our children’s learning. But sometimes it makes me reflect on my own education and wonder what did I miss out on? What else could I have done if I had known more about learning & brain development? My goodness, how much smarter could I have been!?

So I’m left wondering, is there hope for us grown-ups? Can you actually teach an old dog new tricks?

Some recent studies conducted by cognitive neuroscientists suggest that aging brains might actually remain more malleable and plastic than previously thought. Neuroimaging studies suggest aging brains can actually reorganize and change, and not necessarily for the worse. Instead aging brains may just need to activate different parts of the brain to complete the same task – for example using parts of the left and right brain combined, as opposed to just one-side. Given this new potential for aging brain plasticity, logic would suggest that in fact, it is important for an old dog to at least attempt to learn new tricks. This could potentially stimulate the growth (albeit slow and small) of new neurons in old age. As we get older, new skills should be learned in immersive, engaging experiences. So don’t sit at home with a book expecting to learn how to knit – go out, join a class or a group of others interested in learning a new skill. One great option is groups like Skillshare – classes taught by regular people who want to trade their knowledge with others – learn anything from design to cooking to photography.

Learning a new skill can only bring positive changes to your life. In addition to keeping your brain active, studies show that it can also help your creativity, positivity and happiness. While I can’t guarantee it will spark the growth of new neurons, nor promise that picking up a new skill won’t take longer than when you were a kid, I can promise that no matter how old the dog, you can learn a new trick!

So what shall it be…Balancing a ball on my nose or learning guitar?

Hmm. Stay tuned!


3 Replies to “Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks”

  1. This is comforting for me, as I always seem to be trying out a new class: from in-person sign language sessions to the online writing course I just wrapped up… it seems to be a constant for me. It is good to know that in addition to feeding my addiction for keeping busy, learning new things, and exploring interests, there may be all sorts of additional benefits!

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