No more excuses… you can teach an old dog new tricks!

How often do you hear people excuse their bad behaviour by saying, ‘it’s just the way I am’, ‘I’ve always been this way’ or ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’? The truth is, it really is just an excuse.

If you are over 40 and you haven’t paid any attention to brain research or watched the TV series Redesign My Brain with Todd Sampson on the ABC, you may be justified for buying into these excuses. You were probably taught at high school that the brain cannot change after adulthood or after maturation.

It has taken a long time for the ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ dogma to change – a change that is largely due to the extensive work of Dr. Michael Merzenich, who Todd Sampson plugged into for assistance with his TV series. It is now widely accepted that we can change our brains. There are no more excuses.

Jeffrey Schwartz took Merzenich’s work that was predominantly done on animals, and applied the concepts to human beings in his book The Mind and The Brain. Schwartz’s work builds on Merzenich’s work by focusing on capacities that humans have, that monkeys don’t have, including the ability to use language to change our understanding of their environment.

According to Schwartz, ‘Human beings to a very, very, very significant degree have the capacity to change their own environments in meaningful ways. Even more importantly they have the capacity re-interpret their inner environment.’ It is this ability that gives humans the capacity for self-directed neuroplasticity.

The term neuroplasticity in human behaviour change specifically applies to the kinds of changes that come from adjusting the interpretation of an experience. If you change how you interpret your experience that leads the changes in how you focus your attention and this in turn affects how you understand and respond to your environment.

A very important principle of self-directed neuroplasticity is that the more you do an activity, the more you choose a certain kind of response on the activity, the more it gets in your habit centre. The more it gets in your habit centre, the more start doing that activity without even really realizing you’re doing it. An interesting implication of this is that neuroplasticity plays as much of a role in causing the problem as it does in solving the problem.

Schwartz proposes three steps we can take to change behaviour by rewiring our brains using the principles of self-directed neuroplasticity. These are are relabel, reframe and refocus.

Relabeling is looking honestly at the issue and calling it for what it is. People often respond to situations without even really quite realizing that they’re doing it. For example, people will often say ‘I eat to feel better’ when in actual fact they are eating as a subconscious response to anxiety. Simply relabeling the behaviour correctly provides them with an awareness of what they are actually doing.

Relabeling then gives them the opportunity to see the behviour as a cognitive distortion – they now see that they are responding to anxiety in ways that are not how they would really like to, their response is actually unhelpful. Having identified the unhelpful response they can then begin to focus their attention on alternative responses. Adaptive refocus allows them change the underlying wirings of the brain.

Master Certified Coach, Josie Thompson, who has worked collaboratively with Jeffrey Schwartz for many years, adds that a coach can also set up an accountability system to reinfoce this change. When clients come to a coach, the coach is able to bring attention to the behaviours, assist in the relabelling, reframing and refocusing process. They can then highlight the more adaptive behaviours the client is engaging in. Increasing attention and awareness on the positive change, and providing positive feedback and reinforcement, facilitates clients to be more likely repeat that pattern of behaviour. Anything we do repeatedly gets wired in. Any way we pay attention repeatedly gets wired in.

What positive changes would be possible in your life if you stopped making excuses and accessed your mind’s incredible capacity for self-directed neuroplasticity to bring about lasting behavioural change?

Hear more of what Jeff Schwartz and Josie Thompson have to say about neuroplasticity in episode 17 of the Coach Mentor Podcast or download the full transcript of the interview.