Not too long ago, a unique book hit the shelves that gave a glimpse into the potential to change behavior through effective leadership training. As a 96-year-old, James Henry was illiterate. Over the course of his life, the career fisherman had managed to navigate through a written, word-heavy world by using tricks. When eating out, for example, rather than read the menu, he would echo the order of a companion. Even his close friends didn’t realize his secret. Then at 96, nine decades after most children begin reciting the alphabet and spelling their names, Henry learned to read.
Two years later, at 98, he wrote a book about his life titled In a Fisherman’s Language. The book has become internationally recognized, a testament to the often-dismissed truth that we are fully capable of experiencing the benefits of learning and development throughout our entire lives. Though we make a habit of claiming to be “too old” to learn new concepts or to try new activities, our brains remain active, perpetually ready to develop further.
This realization is great news for organizations that hope to develop top leadership programs as a means of transforming business. It means that employees—even people in the middle or late stages in their careers—can change, grow, and adapt through effective leadership training. And it means that we often sell adults short.
Even as we age, our brains are capable of doing far more than memorizing processes or concepts. For most of the last century, the prevailing belief among neuroscientists was that our adult brains remain relatively static. For instance, Nobel laureate Santiago Ramon y Cajal postulated that in the adult brain, neural pathways are “fixed, ended and immutable.” Children, researchers thought, were equipped to learn and form new habits, but adults were not.
Over the last decade, studies have turned those ideas upside down. Although the idea was met with scepticism for a long time, it is now generally accepted that new neurons are continuously added in discrete regions of the brain throughout adult life in various species. Children do not have more memory-based neurons than adults, as scientists originally assumed. In fact, a 2011 report from The Dana Foundation states that the hippocampus—the structure that’s so important to memory—maintains a steady supply of its principal cells across a person’s lifespan.
The brain’s ability to adapt its structural and functional organization as a result of experience is called neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity allows the neurons (nerve cells) in the brain to compensate for injury and disease and to adjust their activities in response to new situations or to changes in their environment. Adaptations range from cellular changes due to learning, to large-scale remapping as a result of injury.
Understanding neuroplasticity is essential for developing effective leadership training that is meant to change behavior. To understand how neuroplasticity effects on our mental models, it is helpful to explore some of the latest research in neuroscience to get a better understanding of how the mind works. I’ll dive deeper into this research during my next few posts.
Michael Vaughan is the CEO of The Regis Company, a global provider of custom business simulations and experiential learning programs. Michael is the author of the books The Thinking Effect: Rethinking Thinking to Create Great Leaders and the New Value Worker and The End of Training: How Business Simulations Are Reshaping Business.