Old dog, new tricks: why it’s never too late to learn something new

Neuroplasticity is the new kid on the block. It’s been around for a long time, but it’s having a second wind. A bit like the Rolling Stones.

Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change itself. When it’s injured or diseased it can re-route traffic to avoid roadblocks, re-organising cells or re-mapping whole areas. Neuroplasticity is also impacted by our daily lives. How we interact socially for example, or our psychological state. Neuroplasticity can be severely impacted when we’re stressed. Connections can grow, but they can wither too without use. So day-to-day we are literally moulding our brains. Important to note if you’ve been watching Love Island on repeat.

So why the interest in neuroplasticity right now? Scientists used to think our brains only formed new connections when we were young. A finite number of cells would mean they slowly atrophied as we aged. But now they know better. In fact our brains are much more ‘plastic’ until later in life, developing new pathways and growing new neurons as well.

This has fantastic implications for us all. The adage ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ is clearly wrong. And neuroplasticity increases dramatically when we’re trying out new things. So lifelong learning is vital.

I’ve been interviewing 100 people going through change in their lives or careers. Malcolm is one of my oldest at 65. Rather than drifting into retirement, he’s become a dot.com entrepreneur. He enjoyed his career, much of it involving working with IT and computers. But recently he realised he has an artistic and creative side too.

“I already have an embryonic web-building business.” Malcolm told me, creating websites for paying clients. But he also, “Creates websites for myself. The business I started last week is an e-commerce website selling T-shirts with my own designs.”

So why isn’t he off playing golf? “I enjoy doing it. It’s not work, it’s fun. I’ve been watching videos on how to make money in the T-shirt business, which is very, very competitive. There’s an opportunity to develop passive income streams, but it’s being creative too. So I love it.”

There are many ways to encourage neuroplasticity — reading fiction, building vocabulary, memory training and ‘neurobics,’ exercises as well. Try this yourself. Every day this week, use your non-dominant hand to stir your tea, brush your teeth or text. More brain workouts here.

Malcolm is re-wiring his brain through creativity, which is proven to work. One research project asked participants to take art classes for 10 weeks. Using both motor and cognitive skills increased their brain connectivity, improving memory, attention, focus and empathy. Amazingly they already saw results in just one week.

So whatever your age you can’t hide anymore. The old dog/new trick excuse is no longer valid. Sorry. Please just put it back in the drawer. Instead dust off the plans you filed away years ago. Those ideas you had about learning something new.

Now is your time. Go forth and teach yourself some new tricks.

This is part of a series called Spoon by Spoon — a project I’ve run interviewing 100 people going through career, relationship and wider life changes. If you’re looking for support with your own career or life change find out more here.

Photo copyright of Charlotte Sheridan

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