Monday, 18 March 2013

Neuroplasticity – New Tricks for Old Dogs

The other day I was in the pub and I heard one guy saying to the other ‘well you know me, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ as if this was an explanation for why he was going to stay the same.  Of course, actually it is no explanation at all because the fact of the matter is we now know you can teach an old dog new tricks, not only that but every person can learn new things regardless of their age. Why? Because the brain isn’t just some sort of static soft round mass of tissue it is actually a living system and your brain is always changing. That change shows up in lots of different ways. It exists at every level, at the level of the cells, at the level of your behaviour and indeed there is an expression in the neurosciences which I think is a very apt one which covers a lot of the what fires together, as in neurons wires together. If it starts happening  on a regular basis it becomes part of the structure of how you do what you do and maybe even how you think of who you are.

What might this mean for us? Well it means that actually old dogs can learn new tricks whenever they wish but they do have to want to do it and they need to know how to do it. This is not just dogs but everybody. For me this is particularly exciting because of the work I’m doing with Professor Patricia Riddell and bringing the world of Applied Neuroscience into our everyday learning and understanding using the tools of NLP to make it possible to apply this new understanding. All of that becomes so much easier with the work that’s being done now which makes it very clear that the best way to understand your brain is to think of it as a system. For me that made life much easier because I spent a lot of time focusing on systems and systems thinking. Indeed I wrote a book about it and one of the things that happens when  you start thinking systemically is you understand the power of feedback; arguably no feedback, no system. Feedback is what tells us whether we are on track or off track, are we doing too much of something, do we need to do more of something, are we doing enough? It is there in every aspect of our lives it is just that often people do not recognise it as such. 

If I’m driving my car, the engine only works because of all sorts of very clever feedback that has been sort of built into it. I can take all the parts of that engine apart, I can pile them up in a heap beside the chassis and I still have all the bits of the engine but I do not have a functioning engine any longer and that’s because the bits are only part of the story. The engine is more than the sum of its parts, the engine is the feedback loops that make things happen to a greater or lesser degree so that the car can move forward and be under my control in the same way our brains have feedback loops and we can begin to engage with those and that changes the way we can be, it changes what’s possible for us and that makes it possible for us to have a new understanding, not just of what we can do but who we might become. 

It creates all sorts of extraordinary opportunities which up until very very recently were not thought to be possible by science itself so there is a real revolution taking place over the past few years within the field so that neuroplasticity has come to be seen as the norm. It used to be the case that we had these myths of location where almost like what Trish calls advanced phonology, you know like there are bits of the brain that do particular things and the classic example of that is the left right brain split that many people still assume is the case, whereas actually what is going on in the neuroscience makes that very old hat and not even true any longer. What therefore becomes possible is that we can start to work with our brains and we can literally create new pathways, have new abilities and we know what is really needed to make that really stick and guess what, so much of what NLP has been doing is giving us the tools to turn this understanding into a practical reality. 

That’s why Applied Neuroscience is so valuable right now. That’s why we’re going to be having a high old time doing a half day Sunday morning exploration of neuroplasticity for you and for me.

I can’t wait. Until the next time.

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