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Science finds you can teach an old dog new tricks

Dierk Schaefer

It may seem like a truism that older people are set in their ways. But research is showing that the human brain is uniquely designed to allow people to change, even as we age.

This week on “Take Care,” author David DiSalvo discusses what science has discovered about our adaptability and how people can use that knowledge to make changes in their own behavior. DiSalvo is the author of three books about the human brain and cognitive psychology. His most recent is "Brain Changer: How Harnessing Your Brain's Power to Adapt Can Change Your Life."

The conventional wisdom used to be that certain aspects of everyone’s personality were likely genetic. But DiSalvo says that the last 20 years or so of research have shown how incredibly flexible our brains are.

“Things like personality and ingrained habits and some things that we’ve taken to be – quote, unquote – genetically predestined actually are a lot more malleable than we previously thought,” said DeSalvo. “And we do have the ability to control, to certainly influence to a great degree, a lot of these things.

DiSalvo says we have undervalued this ability of our brain to adapt. For years, it was thought that children and adolescents, as they were still forming their personalities, could change habits and have a greater ability to learn new things. Then, once adults reached a certain age, that capacity was just gone.

Not so, says DiSalvo. It’s true that children go through a “sponge period” when they constantly absorb information. Then in adolescence, there’s a “pruning period,” when a lot of extraneous information is simply weeded out of the brain. But after those two phases, significant portions of the brain remain “plastic.”

“What that really refers to is a flexibility, a malleability an adaptability in brain tissue,” said DiSalvo. “If you had to point to kind of the biggest discovery in neuroscience in the last couple decades, that’s been it.”

The term neuroplasticity, which has become a bit of a buzzword in the medical field, means the capacity of the nervous system to develop new connections.

But knowing we have the ability to change our long-ingrained ways, and actually changing them are two different things.

DiSalvo says it all hinges on metacognition, which he describes as “the uniquely human ability of thinking about our thinking.” Another way to describe it is being able to control one’s cognitive process.

“By doing that, we gain greater control over this adaptability mechanism, which enhances our ability, for instance to change good habits, bad habits, whatever habit it is,” said DiSalvo.

The natural tendency of our minds is to ruminate, to go off in tangents or different directions. A natural extension of that can be anxiety or depression, says DiSalvo.

Metacognition is really an umbrella term for many different techniques that can be used to stop that runaway thinking before it leads to those feelings or habitual behavior.

Some tools of metacognition are things like meditation, mindfulness, yoga – practices that are very popular right now.

But DiSalvo says the end game for all these strategies is the same: “The ability to stop and separate ourselves from that thinking pattern.”

This time of year, as many people are trying to fulfill New Year’s resolutions to make changes in their lives, a variety of tools might be welcome.

DiSalvo describes one technique in his book he calls “the awareness wedge.” Other researches call it a cognitive pause.

“I think of it as actually visualizing a wedge that comes down into your thought process and literally stops where you are and provides a pause to the next step,” said DiSalvo.

That gives you a moment to stop your thought process and change your actions.

“As people become more experienced and skilled in being able to enable change through metacognition, habits, while still not easy to change, are changeable.”