Proverbs have always made me feel a little sad. When I was a boy, my grandmother used to be gratuitously fond of telling me that, ‘the early bird catches the worm,’ or that ‘God helps those who help themselves.’ Those expressions irritated me because they were usually delivered to cheerfully highlight a lesson that I didn’t particularly want to learn at the time. But they also left me feeling a peculiar emptiness. Though I didn’t understand it then, there is something in the overused, diluted nature of proverbs that makes them seem old, antiquated and irrelevant, much like the little trinkets that my grandmother used to hoard and refuse to part with. That sense has never left me, though as I’ve grown older I’ve learned to appreciate the – sometimes deep – truths that are encapsulated in these ancient sayings, just as I’ve learned to accept why old (and young) people hold on to things.
But, while some proverbs espouse seemingly eternal principles (‘no man is an island’), the evolution of science and human understanding have shown much long-held wisdom to be relative and conditional. My favourite example of this is, ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.’ Anyone who has owned an old dog will tell you that the literal interpretation of this phrase is totally false, but our focus is obviously on the metaphorical human relevance. According to the Cambridge Dictionary the proverb suggests that it is difficult to teach someone new skills or to change their habits or character. As we’ve discussed elsewhere, certain parts of our character or personality do stay largely fixed for our adult lives, but other aspects of our identity are open to radical change. As for the idea that new skills can’t be learned as one gets older – science has proved this plainly wrong.
Were you reading this article 25 years ago it would probably be filled with ‘incontrovertible’ evidence of the nonmalleable nature of the human brain. But, with the recent and rapid development of technologies like CT scans, MRI and EEG – technologies that can ‘see inside’ the human body – the field of neuroscience has exploded with new discoveries. Leading this revolution has been the identification of neuroplasticity – your brain’s tendency to change structure, size and shape in response to your behaviour. While it was previously believed that the brain was fixed after adolescence, unchanging aside from cell ageing and decline, we now know that the brain is highly adaptive, and can be deliberately manipulated to help learning and development. Neuroplasticity has enormous relevance in the medical care industry where it is being used to accelerate recovery from stroke and disease, but it is also profoundly important to your personal success.
How to train your brain
This morning I went for a run in my favourite park. There are a number of winding paved paths around the park designed for recreational walking, but there are also a bunch of worn earthen paths: the types created by people using the park as a thoroughfare – the most direct path from A to B – and the kind created by mountain bikers and runners who prefer to venture off the paved road. These are ‘natural’ paths, carved into the earth by repetitive use. Over time, people begin to favour these paths because they are easier to walk over than open field; the human brain works in a similar way. Over the course of your life your brain has developed neural pathways: the routes by which collections of neurons in the brain communicate with each other. The most used pathways become the most entrenched, and the brain uses them by default. As Dr Tara Swart explains, the brain tends to ‘choose the most energy-efficient path.’ This is an intelligent processing feature, but it is also at the root of why certain patterns of behaviour become habitual without us really noticing it. Some neural pathways may also support non-optimal behaviour, which is why it is healthy to engage in activities that disrupt these patterns and create new neural pathways that support our development.
So, how can we reprogramme our neural pathways and utilise neuroplasticity to become more successful?
1. Practice mindfulness
Mindfulness is the practice of training the mind and unlocking its hidden capacities by learning to non-judgmentally pay attention in the present moment. It can be done informally (eg. paying attention to every moment of eating a meal or brushing your teeth), but greatest impact is achieved in formal practice, which requires that you set aside time to sit or lie down, and focus on an anchor, such as your breath. This practice is simple yet powerful. A recent Harvard study found that just 8 weeks of daily mindfulness practice changed the shape and the structure of the human brain: participants showed positive development in the anterior cingulate cortex (responsible for self-regulation and better decision-making), and the hippocampus (critical to mood regulation, the development of long term memory, and resilience). Mindfulness is also shown to impact the insula (self-awareness and empathy), the size and effect of the amygdala (driver of the fight-or-flight response) and the efficacy of the pre-frontal cortex (home of our higher order executive functions).
2. Challenge yourself (and don’t give up)
Like anything that is well-entrenched, old neural pathways take time to change, and challenging activities require the brain to adapt faster. Studying a new language, learning to play a new instrument, or taking up a new sport are great ways to refresh your brain activity and build mental agility because your brain is required to operate in a new way. Critical to this, though, is consistent practice, which is necessary to cement the neural pathways associated with the new activity. And when you’re done with that, learn something new; the process of learning is itself developmental, facilitating growth of multiple intelligences beyond the content of what you are learning.
3. Break habits
Though the focus of this strategy is to change the mind in order to change behavior, the process works in reverse too and can deliver bolts of creativity. We spend a lot of our lives on autopilot – it’s the brain’s way of blocking together repetitive sequences in our lives and making them automatic so as to save energy. Ever arrived at home or at work with no recollection of how you got there? That’s autopilot, and it’s very useful, but it can also get in the way of us consciously engaging with our lives. So, deliberately disrupt autopilot by actively breaking habits. Dr Danny Penman calls these Habit Releasers and here are some examples to try:
- Drive a different route to work
- Listen to a new radio station
- Sing in the car or the shower
- Play a children’s game
- Color in
- Eat something you’ve never tried before
- Be nice to a stranger
- Unsubscribe from one email list a day
- Don’t check your email first thing in the morning
- Go and see a play
- Don’t check your phone after 7PM
Unfortunately, because it’s mostly unconscious, seeing our habitual and conditioned behavior can be difficult. This is one of the primary benefits of using a coach to implement change – the right person can help you see your current way of being and move beyond it towards a desired state of greater actualisation.