Paths for freedom and progress
Old body but young mind
NOTICE ARCHIVE - 01/09/2017

We are often told that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” – that the grizzled adult brain simply can’t absorb as much information as an impressionable young child’s.
Although you may face some extra difficulties at 30, 50 – or 90 – your brain still has an astonishing ability to learn and master many new skills, whatever your age. And the effort to master a new discipline may be more than repaid in maintaining and enhancing your overall cognitive health.

The prevailing, pessimistic, view of the ageing mind can be traced back to the Ancient Greeks. In his treatise De Memoria et Reminiscentia, Aristotle compared human memory to a wax tablet. At birth, the wax is hot and pliable, but as it cools it becomes too tough and brittle to form distinct impressions – and our memory suffers as a result.

Childhood, in particular, was thought to be the “critical period” to make those impressions. By the end of the critical period, the brain’s circuits begin to settle, making it far harder to learn many complex new skills? Or perhaps children are simply less inhibited and aren’t so scared about making mistakes?

Consider the case of Aleksander Hemon. Originally from Sarajevo in then-Yugoslavia, he found himself stranded in the US on the outbreak of the Bosnian war in 1992 – despite having little command of English. “I had this horrible, pressing need to write because things were happening. I needed to do it the same way I needed to eat, but I just had no language to write in”. And so he set about embracing the language on the streets around him. Within three years, he had published his first piece in an American journal, a path that eventually led to three critically acclaimed novels, two short story collections and a book of autobiographical essays.
Hemon’s profound mastery of expression should have been near impossible if language acquisition had to fall within a critical period for us to achieve true fluency. But his sheer determination and the urgency of the situation fuelled his power to learn.

Admittedly, children may still find it easier to master certain skills, particularly those that revolve around the fine-tuning of our perception. A linguist may struggle to exactly match a native’s accent, while a new musician may never be able to acquire the refined perception of “absolute pitch” shown by stars like Ella Fitzgerald or Jimi Hendrix. But as Hemon shows, you can still be an award-winning novelist without sounding like a native, and many accomplished musicians do not have perfect pitch. Amazing progress is still possible in many different fields, and adults may find that they can make up for some of the deficits with their greater capacity for analysis, self-reflection – and discipline.

The adult brain is far more fertile than expected, and more than capable of sprouting the connections necessary for profound learning. Keeping in shape seems to be particularly important for maintaining that plasticity, as exercise helps to release a flood of neurotransmitters and hormones that are known to promote the growth of new brain cells and synapses.

A simple lack of confidence may present the biggest barrier – particularly for older learners, past retirement, who may have already started to fear a more general cognitive decline.
Eventually, a lack of confidence may become a self-fulfilling prophecy – as your memory skills slowly decline through lack of use. Break through those psychological barriers to learning, and you may soon see some widespread and profound benefits, including a sharper mind overall.
The essential point is to choose something that is unfamiliar, and which requires prolonged and active mental engagement as you cultivate a new set of behaviours. It’s important that the task is novel and that it challenges you personally. If you are a pianist, you might find greater benefits from learning a language say, than attempting to pick up the organ; if you are a painter, you might take up a sport like tennis. Attempt to stretch your mind beyond its comfort zone.

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