Old Dogs, New Tricks


Contrary to the old adage, the latest in brain research shows that we “old dogs” have a fantastic ability to learn new tricks. “Neuroplasticity is the term used to describe this capacity for creating new neural connections and growing new neurons in response to experience” (Siegel, p. 5). And brain research confirms that our brains can change throughout our lifespans. The good news in this? Your patterned reactions to things actually CAN change! The bad news? Now there’s no excuse for staying stuck!

To be fair, though, patterns of emotional reactivity are deeply engrained in most of us. Learning what is necessary to create new neural pathways is tough work and that’s exactly why psychotherapy exists. At its best, the process of psychotherapy helps people drill into what’s happening in their bodies and emotions when they slip into an unhelpful reaction to something. By learning to notice and focus attention on these sensations, a whole new world of options opens up for us. Daniel Siegel calls this skill mindsight. “Mindsight is a kind of focused attention that allows us to see the internal workings of our own minds. It helps us to be aware of our mental processes without being swept away by them, enables us to get ourselves off the autopilot of ingrained behaviors and habitual responses, and moves us beyond the reactive emotional loops we all have a tendency to get trapped in” (Siegel, p.xi)

Do you relate to this? Perhaps you are a bit baffled by your angry reactions to your mom that you realize on some level are overreactions. Or maybe you can see yourself withdrawing from awkward conversations at work but feel powerless to stay engaged. Or you may be like so many parents, tortured by their own impatience with their kids. Or you might feel hopelessly stuck in the same argument with your spouse.

Change is possible, but it takes awareness and willingness to learn self-soothing and new responses. The process of therapy helps the client stay in the initial feeling rather than running away from, blocking, or reacting to it. Exposure to the feeling and learning to tolerate it allows the person to walk through the experience of the feeling and then live differently; without the anger, withdrawal, impatience, or stuckness ruling their actions. THAT is true freedom!

I highly recommend Siegel’s book that I quoted above: Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation. This website will give you more resources and a link to find the book.


  1. Janice, Could you come live with me and whisper things in my ears all day? I love your posts! This is great; it makes me so hopeful.

  2. When I’m on the run and have that strange feeling that an engrained emotional reaction is taking charge, but I don’t have the time to figure it out yet, I’m slowly learning to cry out to God for help: “Help me Spirit, Help me change, Help me do this differently.” Somehow, the prayer begins to soften the ruts in the emotions and new pathways and new actions seem to open up.

  3. similar things said in the intimacy and desire book. and the idea that changes in those areas help to form the new neural connections. i guess we’ve always believed in “transformation” being possible and this gives a scientific idea of how it is — and why it’s such hard work at the same time. i echo Lisa, would love to have your wisdom personally available all the time. i look forward to your blog posts!

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