Carrie Carter ~ Old Dog, New Tricks: Neuroplasticity and the Renewing of Your Mind
You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
I have an old dog, so take my word for it. She wasn’t very good at learning new tricks when she was a younger dog. I was elated that we passed obedience class since her “sits” were hesitant and forced most of the time, and her “down stays” were almost non-existent.
You see, she was a dog we rescued from the shelter. A dog that had previously been trained to hunt, and that had (still has) bird shot peppered throughout her body. Soon after adopting her, an elderly hunter told me that if a bird dog sits on the job, often the hunter will shoot the dog as a disciplinary action; and, while we couldn’t be sure, that may be why she refused to sit without a hand pushing down on her backside. Now that she’s old, I don’t even ask it of her.
You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
I’ve heard it echoed countless times over stylistic changes in the church, over updated technology, over music genres, over driving in unfamiliar areas, over ethnic food, over acceptance of someone who might be different from the person using the idiom. My list could go on, but…
I beg to differ. And actually, the Apostle Paul does as well.
And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, [emphasis mine] so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)
In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he urged them to put away the habits of the world that had become a part of who they were: habits that conformed to the godless customs and culture in which they lived and that kept them from knowing the will of God.
Anyone who has tried to change a habit understands the difficulty, whether it be with food choices, activity levels, time management, or more. It can take anywhere from 18-254 days to change a habit, but it can be done, all due to God’s intricate handiwork in creating neuroplasticity.
Up until the 1970’s, scientists thought that certain functions in a brain were hard-wired. Any changes that occurred were the exception. However, as technology advanced and our ability increased to study areas of the body that were previously a mystery, it was discovered that our brains have the capacity to change their connections and behavior in response to new information, sensory stimulation, development, damage, or dysfunction.
“Neuroplasticity” literally equals “plastic brains.” God created brains that are resilient, always learning, formed by our experiences and our attitudes, and, to an extent, are able to recover from traumatic injuries. (What would we be capable of, if not for the limitations lowered on us by the curse of sin?)
Are you as wowed as I am?
So are the concepts of being “transformed by the renewing of your mind” and neuroplasticity intertwined? I think so, and here’s how:
Paul’s exhortation is clear. After doing a quick word study on “renew,” the word means…exactly that. There are no other substitutions in the Greek for his use of “renew.” “By the renewing – By the making new; the changing into new views and feelings,” states late theologian Albert Barnes.
In the culture Paul addressed – a culture fraught with immorality, the celebration of violence, and slavery that crossed every line – how were these new Christ-followers to actually follow Christ? Up until that point, they knew no different lifestyle. It was normal. How were they to change such embedded behavioral patterns and thought processes? Why would Paul even ask this of them?
Because Paul knew it could be done. With the help of God’s brilliance in forming the brain with capacities to change, the presence of the Holy Spirit, and years of reconditioning and retraining, Paul himself was transformed by the renewing of his mind and did a 180-degree turn in his way of living. He did not ask the Romans (or any other recipient of his letters) to do something he did not do.
So, can an old dog learn new tricks?
The answer is a firm, “Yes.”
Through a willingness to continue learning, to open yourself to new experiences, to immerse yourself in new social interactions, to pay attention to your surroundings, to get off the couch and get moving, to learn a new skill, you can strengthen weakened synapses and create new neural connections—ones that will open a whole new world: a world in which you can reach today’s generation with the good news of Jesus Christ!
You are never too old to change. God has implemented you with the mental ability, and the Holy Spirit provides you with the spiritual ability to change.
You can teach an old dog new tricks.
Now go out, revel in God’s handiwork, and grow some new synapses so you can be more effective in reaching others for Christ!
Rubin, G. (2009, October 21). Stop Expecting to Change Your Habit in 21 Days. Retrieved September 20, 2017, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-happiness-project/200910/stop-expecting-change-your-habit-in-21-days
Rugnetta, M. (2017, June 15) Neuroplasticity. Retrieved September 20, 2017, from https://www.britannica.com/science/neuroplasticity
Buscynski, R. (No date stated). How Does Neuroplasticity Work [Infograph]. Retrieved September 20, 2017 from http://www.nicabm.com/brain-how-does-neuroplasticity-work/
Barnes, A. (circa 1870). Notes on the New Testament, Retrieved September 20, 2017, from http://biblehub.com/commentaries/barnes/romans/12.htm