Cognitive Neuroscience Part 4: Teaching an old dog new tricks


Twenty years ago, most physicians, psychologists and researchers believed that the human brain stopped developing after a certain age. The brain could grow and change during childhood or adolescence, but not adulthood. On the surface, this makes sense. It is sometimes difficult to teach an old dog new tricks.

However, most new research (using modern imaging techniques like SPECT and fMRI that weren’t around in the 1970’s) strongly suggests that the brain actually can continue to develop new connections well into adulthood.

Research in cognitive neuroscience has identified three activities that all enhance the brain’s ability build new connections and neural networks. Psychiatrist Curt Thompson refers to them as the “neuroplastic triad.” They are:

  1. Aerobic activity – Engaging in light aerobic activity for at least 45 minutes per day at least 5 days a week. It’s good for our bodies and our minds.
  2. Focused attention exercises – These are things like engaging in prayer or meditation. We can pick and choose what we focus our attention on. For example, right now you are focusing your attention on the words on this screen as you’re reading. However, if you were to suddenly hear a loud crash outside, you might shift your attention to the nearest window or door to see what happened. By learning to focus and center our attention, we better prepare our brains to engage in mental rewiring.
  3. Novel learning experiences – This includes any activity that expands your level of creativity. Learning a foreign language, how to play an instrument or taking an art class are all excellent examples. However, creativity, communication and expression are key. For example, memorizing the phone book does not appear to have the same affects on brain development.

Whenever I am working with a client who feels “stuck,” I often recommend these three activities. By engaging in these actives, we prime the brain for change, which can often help us shift our thinking in other areas of life.

Eric McClerren, LAPC
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