Neuroplasticity, Change and Older Adults

“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”. We’ve all heard this old saw but with the new research in brain neuroplasticity, it simply is not true. The brain is changeable and is constantly building new pathways and destroying old ones regardless of age. However, the more a pathway is used in the brain, the stronger it is and the more difficult it is to change to a new pathway. So trying to change pathways used for decades will need considerable attention.

Some pathways in an older person’s brain are quite strong and do lead to easily predictable responses as they have been used for many years. Pathways become strong through two mechanisms: being used consistently to predict a response and the emotional content of the pathway. The stronger the emotions entwined in the pathway, the more difficult it is to change the pathway. Those pathway responses can be so strong that it may be difficult to build new pathways and individuals that wish to change must consistently work at change. It may take more time because of a person’s age but it is possible.

 

These automatic pathways in the brain become so strong that older adults may not realise that this automatic response is actually reducing their choices. As an example, if a person doesn’t believe that they can do something then they will be very reluctant to move into a situation that will require them to do that action. Regardless of whether that action would be beneficial for many other reasons or whether they really do have difficulties, the pathway is so strong that it is preventing them making a change.

This happened to me. I moved from rural Australia to the coast and found myself making fewer and fewer choices to do something new. I held on to the old pathways that said this is the way I act. Since I’ve had this personal revelation, I’ve made determined efforts to do new things. I am volunteering more and think I have found a place where I enjoy volunteering. I’ve signed up for a new course in mindfulness meditation; something I’ve wanted to know more about, I’ve started Stand Up Paddle Boarding (started being the relevant word)  and I have made an effort to meet new people and get to know them.

How do older adults make changes in their lives while these strong pathways are seemingly in charge?

Meditation is one tool that is quite helpful. Meditation trains you to disengage emotions from the fact. By simply observing thoughts, ideas, memories as they flow through your brain and remaining calm and refusing to engage with the emotions, your thought processes become much clearer. Emotions have a way of muddying up the facts. With a clearer view of what actually has or may happen without the accompanying emotion, you can analyse the happening with more objectivity. This allows you to decide if the change is worth it to you at this point in time.

How many of us fall into saying and or doing what our parents said or did to us and we pass these on to our children. This is simply a pathway that began we were quite young and it is still driving behaviour. It may be quite useless now or it could have been wrong in the first place. But with emotions entangling the action, it may be very difficult to realise that it is no longer useful in our present lives. Long term habits can be quite difficult to change but it can be done with meditation and an understanding of our brain pathways.

So older adults will have to work harder to change and will have to be very consistent about their need to change. Meditation is quite helpful in that it trains you to disengage from the emotions in an action but it also requires you to develop an intention when meditating – this is what I want to achieve and this is how I will achieve it. The brain has no way to know the difference between information coming from the senses as opposed to an intention developed by the mind. Both are equally strong in asking the brain to either follow a developed pathway or build a new one. So consistent and repetitive meditation that focusses on change will result in the strong, old pathway becoming less relevant and being discarded as the new pathway starts directing us to the change desired.

Unfortunately, this is not a fast process. The ingrained pathways will be hard to shift and the brain grows new pathways very slowly. Research on building a new pathway found that it could take six months for the brain to start building a pathway that could be measured by brain scans. So developing a meditation practice is a long term project that requires consistent and repetitive setting of the intention to change. It may be more difficult if you are trying to change a long held belief but it is possible.

Yes old dogs can learn new tricks and one method is a consistent meditation practice to build new pathways to the future you would like.