By Mona D. Fishbane, PhD, Interpersonal Neurobiology
Can an old dog learn new tricks? Can we change in adulthood? Many of us struggle with this question as we make New Year’s resolutions that we fail to meet: eating healthier, exercising, overcoming behavioral habits that keep us from living up to our personal and relational goals.
Sometimes we blame our genetics—it’s our DNA that is keeping us stuck! Or we blame our childhoods—if only we had better parenting, we could reach for the stars! There is no question that we are each born with a temperament, and that genes play a role in our abilities and limitations. And early childhood experience does shape our brains. In fact, neuroscientists these days look at the interplay between genes and environment, or G x E. But does that mean once we have survived childhood we are fixed, set in our ways, determined by our nature and early nurture?
Neuroplasticity in Adulthood
Until a decade or so ago, many scientists thought that while children’s brains are m alleable or plastic, neuroplasticity stops after age 25, at which point the brain is fully wired and mature; you lose neurons as you age, and basically it’s all downhill after your mid-twenties. Fortunately, this rather grim view of the aging brain has been upended by more recent research. We now know that the human brain is capable of change throughout life. It’s true that a typical child’s brain is more plastic, more capable of change and new learning than a typical adult brain. And we do lose neurons as we age. But it’s not all downhill; the adult brain can create new neuronal connections and even new neurons born from neuronal stem cells. In addition to these gray matter (neuronal) changes, there can be change in our white matter, the pathways between neurons and the myelin that allows neurons to communicate efficiently.
What Promotes Neuroplasticity?
We are not guaranteed vibrant, flexible brains as we age, however. A lot depends on how we live our lives. The adult brain needs oxygen and stimulation to stay sharp and capable of change.
Researchers have identified the following three habits as facilitating neuroplasticity as we age: physical exercise (which increases blood flow to the brain, delivering much-needed oxygen), paying attention, and learning new things. Once I learned about the impact of physical movement on neuroplasticity, I increased my exercise to daily from twice a week. And I see the difference in both body and mind! While an aerobic workout is great, even walking briskly for half an hour will increase blood flow and feed oxygen to hungry neurons.
The second factor that increases neuroplasticity, paying attention, is the opposite of acting on automatic pilot. Most of the time we do function on automatic, which is easier and less tiring than thinking through and being aware of our every move. This automaticity can be to our advantage, as we easily ride our bike or whip up our favorite recipe. But living on automatic can mean that we miss precious moments, forget to smell the roses, or take for granted a majestic mountain vista. Waking up to our experience allows us to be present. It also allows the brain to be more active and flexible. One of the best ways to pay attention is to engage in mindfulness practices, whether through a formal practice of meditation or in more informal ways.
The third stimulus to brain plasticity in adulthood is learning new things. This comes naturally to a young child, for whom everything is new. By contrast, adults tend to be less open. We get comfortable with the familiar; we like to kick back, relax, and do the same old, same old. This may feel good, but it does not contribute to neural flexibility. And if we combine same old, same old with not exercising—being a couch potato, television, potato chips and all—we are depriving the brain of the nutrients of neuroplasticity.
Mind-Sets about Change
Some of us are more open to change than others. Carol Dweck’s research offers a fascinating glimpse into our mind-sets about change. Some people, she says, have a fixed mind-set; they are not interested in changing, or assume they are incapable of change as adults. This is epitomized in Popeye’s famous statement, “I yam what I yam.” By contrast, people with a growth mind-set assume they are capable of change and growth in their lives.
Change in Couples
Some folks come eagerly to therapy, looking forward to the possibilities of learning and transformation. Others are hesitant, defending their right to be as they are. It’s not uncommon in a couple that one partner takes the “let’s change and grow” position, while the other comes to therapy reluctantly.
Old habits have quite a hold on us and are hard to change. To wire in a new set of behaviors, we have to repeat them over and over again. Eventually, these new behaviors become the new normal.
For hypothetical example, Tina, feeling increasingly disconnected in her marriage and frustrated that Joe doesn’t share her enthusiasm for deep, emotional conversations, drags him to therapy to improve their relationship. Joe comes to couples therapy because he loves his wife and doesn’t want to lose her. But he is resentful. He says, “I’m the same man you married—the strong and silent type. You’re the one who has changed!” For Joe, Tina’s evolving needs and her pushing him to change are the problem. Joe has a fixed mind-set, and he defends his right to stay the same. Tina has a growth mind-set; for her, transformation and growth are vital nutrients. Their “meeting of the mind-sets” is the first challenge we will face as we work together. I will help Joe see the positive payoffs of change, and I will help Tina back off from her campaign to reform Joe.
Most of us don’t want to “be changed” by someone else. We want to author our own change. Tina sees change as a transitive verb with a direct object: “Tina changes Joe.” But Joe doesn’t want to be the direct object of Tina’s change agenda. He wants some autonomy to choose his change. Family therapists have long observed that the only person you can change is yourself. Both Joe and Tina may decide to change in order to revitalize their relationship—but this needs to be a choice for each of them. Authoring your own change can be empowering; having change foisted on you can breed resentment.
Making Change Last
Let’s come back to those New Year’s resolutions. We have great intentions, and do engage in healthier habits for a while—only to find a few weeks in that we are backsliding. It’s too cold to go to the gym. There’s no time. We are great at coming up with excuses. Why is it so hard to live up to our goals and make new changes last?
Once again, neuroscience points to the answer. Habits become wired into the brain; once established through constant repetition, circuits of neurons keep our habits in place. Old habits have quite a hold on us and are hard to change. To wire in a new set of behaviors, we have to repeat them over and over again. Eventually, these new behaviors become the new normal.
When I started swimming as an adult, every trip to the pool was an effort as I worked to coordinate my breathing with my strokes. My brain and body were not accustomed to an aquatic life. Now, after years of regular visits to the pool, I crave my morning swim; I feel so natural in the water, I wonder if I was a fish in a former life.
Embracing a Growth Mind-Set
Whether we like it or not, things change. Our brains and bodies are evolving all the time—getting stronger as we exercise mentally and physically, getting weaker as we age or become couch potatoes. We can’t stop the process of time and aging, but we do have some choices over how we deal with our lives and relationships.
We can opt to live in a way that nurtures neuroplasticity—or we can close our hearts and minds to the new. We can exercise body and mind, or we can let our physical and mental faculties slide. Our mind-sets and our habits affect the brain, for better or worse. Choosing change, a growth mind-set, allows us to nurture neuroplasticity in our brains and promotes flexibility in our personal and relational lives.