Old Dogs CAN Learn New Tricks: It’s called Neuroplasticity

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I often have students on my range who have previously learned and practiced shooting in a way that is counterintuitive and doesn’t work well in the context of self-defense. Typically, these students “came up” shooting bullseye targets in the Weaver stance while staring at the front sight for every single shot. When they come to a Combat Focus Shooting class, I introduce them to a natural, neutral, athletic stance that the human body instinctively puts us in when we are preparing to fight. I then teach them to fully extend the gun and engage the shoulders to allow for a presentation of the firearm that is consistent with the visual plane and helps with recoil management. Finally, I tell them only to close one eye and use the sights if the target dictates a need for greater precision, but to otherwise focus on the target and rely on proper kinesthetic alignment to achieve accurate shots. For those who have spent many years essentially just target shooting, this different way of doing things is going to take some “getting used to”; and this is before I even introduce other concepts such as lateral movement, processing information after an engagement, etc.. Fortunately for these students, the old cliché’ that you “can’t teach an old dog new tricks” has been proven by neuroscience to be patently false. While it will certainly take time and repetition, even brains that are “set in their ways” can be neurologically reshaped to produce the desired results, regardless of the age of the student. In fact, some of the repetition that can help in achieving this goal need not even occur on the range at all. It turns out that our brains are capable of far more adjustment than we have historically given them credit for.

In the past, our understanding of the way the brain works was based on the assumption that our neurons are “hardwired” to accomplish certain tasks in certain ways from childhood (or whenever we initially learn something), and could not be effectively re-adjusted later in life. This is where we get the “old dog” cliché’ mentioned above. However, neuroscientists have made new discoveries in the past couple of decades that have flown in the face of this old conventional wisdom. In fact, our brains are not “hardwired” in any sense of the word. Quite the contrary, our neurological “wiring” is constantly changing based on continued experiential learning that occurs throughout life. neuroplasticity-lodozo_com

The brain is capable of re-routing, adapting, discarding, and even creating new neurological pathways in ways that we simply couldn’t understand prior to technologies like eMRI imaging. We still don’t fully understand the brain’s ability to adapt, and are constantly finding new phenomena that challenge previously held dogma. This new understanding of the adaptability of the human brain is called “neuroplasticity”, and is changing the way that we view what learning really consists of. This has many positive implications for those students who are “re-learning” to shoot in the context of self-defense after many years of old school target-shooting.

We now know without a doubt that through practice and repetition, “old dogs” can in fact learn “new tricks”, though not usually overnight. When I have these “old dogs” in class, I can usually see the neuroplasticity mentioned above beginning to occur by about the afternoon of the second day of class. After doing hundreds of repetitions of the new skillset, I start to see the old “habits” melting away as they are replaced by what is being learned in class. The feet that used to be staggered start to square off. The one arm that used to be cocked is now reaching full extension. However, it doesn’t typically become fully ingrained in the short amount of time the 2 day class consists of. ruts

During drills that are designed to put the student off balance, I typically see those old habits “creep up” so to speak. All this means is that the synaptic connections that the new neurological pathways consist of have not fully developed and will require more “construction time” through continued practice. A mentor of mine refers to overcoming these old ‘habits’ as digging a new “rut in the road”. When we learn things in a certain way, we dig a mental rut (neural pathway), and replacing that old rut with a new one simply takes time and repetition. As such, jerking the steering wheel and getting frustrated is a waste of time. You simply have to be patient, keep practicing, and let the brain do what it does as the new “rut” is dug.

Fortunately, we have also learned that not all practice must be physical in order to be effective. In a 2007 Time Magazine article that goes into a lot of detail on neuroplasticity, we learn about a study that was conducted by a Harvard neuroscientist by the name of Alvaro Pascual-Leone. In this study, Pascual-Leone took 2 groups of volunteers and taught them how to play a simple melody on the piano as he measured the neurological activity in their brains. While one group learned to play the melody by physically touching the keys, the other was instructed to simply visualize themselves playing the notes. After a week of practice, both groups were able to physically play the melody on the piano, and the neurological changes observed in both groups were nearly identical. Through simply visualizing, one group was able to learn and execute the task just as well as those who had done the “hands on” learning.

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While I’m certainly not suggesting that you neglect your range time in favor of meditation, what I am suggesting is that a great deal can be accomplished just by visualizing yourself “doing it right”. This is going to be especially helpful when trying to “unlearn” some old habit and replace it with something new. If you will spend as much time as you do physically practicing, visualizing yourself executing the new skills you are learning; you will be surprised by how well you do when it comes time to physically execute them on the range.  Visualization techniques have been used to help professional athletes perform at high levels, and to help clinically depressed and OCD patients overcome their disorders; and it will undoubtedly help you learn to efficiently integrate with a handgun.

The human brain is an amazing organ. We are just now starting to see just how malleable and capable of adjustment it really is. So, if you are an “old dog” who used to shoot weaver stance at bullseye targets, you too can learn new skills in context; it’s just going to take some extra time and dedication. If you are willing to put in the work, your brain will do the rest.

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