Old Dogs, New Tricks!

“Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.”

Henry Ford

Have you become “set in your ways”? Perhaps you believe that you “can’t teach an old dog new tricks” or consider yourself a “creature of habit”? Maybe you have simply “settled into a rut” or allowed yourself to develop a few “foibles”! Probably not – if you are reading my blog you are much more likely to agree with Mr Ford. But English is not the only language to encapsulate this negative and inaccurate idea about the way the brain works in a well-known adage. The French say that you cannot teach an old monkey to pull a funny face, the Spanish claim that an old parrot cannot learn to speak and the translation from the Italian version pithily states that older people don’t learn new things!

A version of the phrase “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” has existed since at least the early 1500s – in 1534 it appears in a treatise on animal husbandry written by John Fitzherbert, who writes “the dogge must lerne it, whan he is a whelpe, or else it wyl not be; for it is harde to make an olde dogge to stoupe [lower its nose to track a scent]” – at least this version suggests that is it difficult rather than baldly stating that it is impossible.

Debunking this particular myth about dogs is popular. The Discovery Channel show Mythbusters took two beautiful but entirely untrained 7-year-old Alaskan Malamutes and taught them five classic tricks – you can see the results on YouTube. For all you dog fans out there I also found this delightful article from blogger Margaret Nee’s The Art Of Dog, which discusses the mental flexibility of dogs of all ages at great length.

A Stroke Of Insight…

Of course the real damage of an idea like this is not how it affects the way we treat dogs, but how it expresses our beliefs about our own brains. It turns out that the line “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is commonly suggested as an example of a suitable test for damage to the speech centres of the brain after stroke – so much so that a whole page of similar references pops up on Google. Using this phrase this way is particularly ironic as it (coincidently?) reinforces outdated ideas about how much recovery from stroke is possible. Fortunately in Jill Bolte Taylor we have a neuroscientist who is also an eloquent stroke survivor, full of confidence in her own relearning process, and keen to spread the word and share what is possible with other stroke survivors. I recommend her book A Stroke Of Insight, and her TED talk on the same theme, to anyone who would like to understand more about the brain, the meaning of the term neuroplasticity, and the interrelationship of our left and right hemispheres. Sadly the medical profession can be slow to respond to new information, and I suspect even now many people working with stroke survivors still think that the maximum window of opportunity for recovery is around two years and that little progress can be made after that period. I was very excited to read her book as I know from personal experience that this can be a difficult group to inspire; the road back to health is long and demands intense regular practice so, without support from carers and other successful stroke survivors, it is easy to lose heart.

Old habits die hard…

For the majority of us change is much easier to achieve, and, despite expectations, as we get older the two main barriers to learning new stuff are, in reverse order of importance, finding the necessary time to actually practise, and unlearning old stuff that is no longer useful. We all have ways of behaving that are so deeply embedded in our nervous system that we do not remember learning them, and that get in the way of our natural human facility for creativity and innovation – more succinctly, we always find ourselves attempting to do new things in all-too-familiar ways. The term “hard-wired in the brain” is often used inaccurately to suggest that a particular way of acting is innate and thus unalterable. In actuality we mostly do the hardwiring ourselves, repeating a particular way of behaving – or thinking – so regularly that those neural pathways activate automatically. As far as your brain and nervous system are concerned there is little to choose between a skill and a habit; either way, as soon as a neural pathway is fully established the behaviour is much less conscious. When we are developing a new ability, that switch from greater to lesser awareness is a good sign – “wow, my fingers just know how to play that chord now” we think, and congratulate ourselves on transcending the effort used in practising. This is fine until we want to stop doing something. For example, once a musician has a wrong note established in their head it is much harder to play the right note – you know what I am talking about, the self-help industry is massive, precisely because so many of us are aware of just how much we get in our own way. Moshe Feldenkrais called this behaviour “compulsive” and wrote about it at length in The Potent Self, focussing on the compulsively “nice” person as a specific example. He saw greater self-awareness as the key to freeing ourselves from our compulsions, and that is why he saw his Method as a way to help people achieve real, long-lasting change, not just better mobility and self-use.

In my previous blog post on habits I mentioned Jeremy Dean‘s book Making Habits, Changing Habits, revealing new research on changing habits that goes into detail on the different lengths of time required to establish a new habit. The average length of time was 66 days, with increasing daily water intake coming out as much quicker to establish than eating fruit or doing 50 sit ups. Thanks to Malcolm Gladwell we know that we can master anything that does not require a specific physical advantageas long as we put in the necessary 10,000 hours of practice – nothing is impossible if you are prepared to dedicate enough time at attention to achieving it…

“You are never too old…”

Of course old dogs can and do learn new tricks, it just takes a little longer sometimes. My colleague Dr. Frank Wildman has posted several YouTube films with the theme “Change Your Age”; they are particularly useful for older people who are unfamiliar with Feldenkrais but aware that they could improve their lives by improving their mobility – I am sad that the title is so unappealing but the movements ideas are nicely presented and particularly useful delivered by a man I think, as it is so much easier to find film of older women moving well, and men can sometimes be quicker than women to accept becoming “set in their ways”, certainly if the gender balance in my classes is anything to go by…

The intention to encourage you to develop your own ability to learn, adapt, create and innovate is what “applied” Feldenkrais is all about.

1. Sit on the floor for at least 30 minutes everyday – yeah, yeah, just gonna keep saying it over and over until you are all giving it the old college try. Remember, if you can get up off the floor without using your hands you are statistically more likely to live longer. I would really love some feedback too, so do let me know if you are having a go, and what you notice after you have been doing it for a couple of months. I am really going for it, did my accounts sitting on the floor, typing this blog sitting on the floor…

2.  Look at the things you do most days with eyes as open as you can manage. A good example of an area where most of us have allowed poor self-use to become habitual is the way we handle our smart phones, lap tops and tablets. Every tube journey I take I find myself surrounded by people literally hunched over their portable devices, busy developing RSI, neck and back pain and often straining their eyes and causing permanent damage to their hearing to boot. If you can take steps to interact with these devices without hunching over them you will feel the benefit for the rest of your life…

3. …and actually this brings me to one of our species most dangerous habits – the vast majority of us only tackle our habits when they are really entrenched, only notice our restricted mobility once we cannot do something at all anymore, and only go looking for help when we are already in pain. Just as “a stitch in time saves nine” and “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” so regular Feldenkrais practice can keep you moving like a 30 year old well into old age.


Cece and Bobo





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