photo credit: snowbrains.com

There’s a popular proverb in my native language that goes:

“You cannot learn to use your left arm at an old age.”

With over 30+ years of “field experience”, my right arm clearly has several distinct advantages over my left arm. In fact, in many cultures and tribes across Africa, the left hand plays the role of a shadow limb.

It’s considered bad manners to eat with your left hand.

It’s impolite to take or offer a handshake with your left hand. And you’re considered disrespectful if you give or pass on an item – money, a soup bowl, car keys, or anything — with your left hand.

A close friend was telling me the other day about his wife’s long running battle with their son who’s just a toddler. She’s practically forcing him out of using his left hand, despite the young boy’s natural inclination to use that arm.

Sadly, this is common practice in many homes on the continent.

As a people steeped in culture and tradition, I think we have a penchant for convention and old habits, even when there’s very little common sense to support these behaviours.

And what’s the common excuse?

“That’s how it’s done.”

Dear Left Arm, I apologise…

I was surfing Quora a few weeks ago and stumbled on an interesting contribution by a US soldier who served in Iraq. He mentioned how he decided to start using his left arm out of sheer curiosity. He figured that one day, his survival could depend on his left arm if his other arm got severely wounded in battle.

And then it hit me. This soldier and I actually share something in common. As a writer, I depend on my hands every day. Even though I have learned to type with both hands, I just can’t imagine what life would feel like without my right arm.

In my opinion, nature has built in a clever redundancy in humans.

Many of our key external body parts come in pairs. We have two eyes, two ears, two arms, and two legs; each one complementing the other in function and symmetry.

However, one of the main casualties of human evolution and modernity is the loss of the functional use of one of our upper-body limbs – and for many people, it’s usually the left arm.

So, I started to wonder. How could I start to use my left arm which, practically speaking, has been ‘functionally paralysed’ for decades?

How could I start to make up for all the years of discrimination and disuse?

Could I possibly learn to regain functional use of my left arm, even as “conventional wisdom” argues otherwise?

So, two weeks ago, I decided to reassign one of the key tasks my right hand has been doing for 30+ years. Even though my right hand has learned to do this task in “autopilot mode”, I’ve had to start using my left arm to get it done.

It’s a simple task we all do every morning without even thinking about it.

It’s brushing our teeth.

The first day I tried brushing my teeth with my left hand, it felt awkward, clumsy and downright silly. I had to consciously supervise every single stroke and movement of my left arm. Several times, I took the wrong turn and would often bruise my gums or the mouth walls.

Surprisingly, just five days after this bathroom experiment started, I could clearly see the remarkable improvement my left arm had made. It wasn’t yet as perfect as my right arm, but it was doing a great job. The brush strokes and arm movements were more intentional, the rhythm had become more natural and the mishaps and bruises were far fewer than when I first started.

The best part is, I now brush my teeth with my left arm on autopilot – I don’t even think about it when I’m doing it.

How my left arm learned this new task so fast got me really excited and curious at the same time.

This “success” may not sound like much to you, but it’s a very big deal to me. Imagine all the things I could make my left arm learn and do. What if I could learn how to write fluently with it too?

How cool would that be?

You’re never too old to learn anything

Neuroplasticity. Do you know what it means?

It’s a term used to describe the ability of the brain to reshape and reorganize itself in response to new situations and changes in the environment. Like molten plastic, the brain’s neurons can make new connections and find new pathways whenever we learn something new.

For a long time, neuroplasticity was thought to be at its most active during childhood. Often, people would say that a child could learn up to eight different languages because the brain is at its most fluid state during the early years of life.

However, recent findings show that neuroplasticity actually happens throughout life; from the cradle to the grave. The human brain continues to remake itself throughout life, even in old age.

Essentially, this means you can rewire your brain – at any time in your life – through learning and exploring new experiences. The body of scientific evidence that exists today proves that we are never too old or too late to learn anything.

My curiosity about neuroplasticity led me down a rabbit hole, and I stumbled on this fascinating TEDx Talk by Sara Boyd, an accomplished neurosurgeon who was recruited by the University of British Columbia to become the Canada Research Chair in Neurobiology and Motor Learning.

According to her, “our knowledge of the brain is evolving at a breathtaking pace. By learning new concepts, taking advantage of opportunities, and participating in new activities, we can physically change who we are, and open up a world of endless possibility.”

Her Talk is aptly titled: After watching this, your brain will not be the same”.

Armed with this new understanding of the human brain’s lifelong ability to continuously evolve and adapt to new experiences, our lives are suddenly open to endless possibilities.

There is no such thing as “being set in your ways”.

There is no such thing as “being too old to learn or too old to change”.

These days, every old dog CAN learn new tricks.

Are you afraid of change?

It’s no longer news that we now live in an age of “aggressive disruption”. New and bold ideas are challenging and turning over old ways of thinking. Contrarian and counter-intuitive concepts are shattering age-old traditions and toppling conventional business models.

Today, the world’s most successful taxi company – Uber — doesn’t own a single taxi.

Today, Tesla is leading an electric car revolution that could shake out the entire global automobile industry.

Within the next decade, space travel could become the hottest tourist attraction in the world. And in a few more decades, a trip to space could be just as cursory as a regular flight from New York to London.

In this age of aggressive disruption, everything we have ever known is being turned on its head. And over the next few decades, a lot of jobs that exist today could become totally irrelevant tomorrow.

Are you ready for this future?

The truth is, nobody pulls disruption out of thin air. Innovation and disruption come from challenging long-held traditions, assumptions, conventions, laws and philosophies that bind us to the past and old ways of thinking.

Very often, these old ways of thinking are “enshrined” in dogma, culture, law, paradigms and tradition that should not be questioned. Just obey. Don’t ask any questions.

Now, you know better.

The future belongs to those who ask questions.

The future belongs to those who challenge old habits and shake up their comfort zones.

The future belongs to the lifelong learners.

For the sake of the evolution of our species, and for the sake of our brain’s development, we should learn something new and different every day.

If you’re “traditionally” right-handed, give your left arm a chance. And if you’re left-handed, do same for the right.

Make yourself a little “uncomfortable” and you’ll be amazed at the amazing transformation your brain and life will experience.