Does our age impact our motivation to continue to learn new things? Scientists used to believe that as we age, our brain’s capacity to store new information and retrieve old facts become more and more impaired. Where does science stand on this now? Can we still resort to “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” to get out of learning something new, or is it never too late to refresh that long-forgotten skill?
“Psychologists often define learning as a relatively permanent change in behavior as a result of experience,” mental healthy website Very Well Mind states. “The psychology of learning focuses on a range of topics related to how people learn and interact with their environments.”
Harvard research shows that, “there is no period in life when the brain and its functions just hold steady. Some cognitive functions become weaker with age, while others actually improve.”
To put it in perspective, when we are young, we are able to take in new information and store it — or create new memories. That is where the phrase that children are like sponges comes from. The ability of children to soak up information all around them is marvelous and, in a healthy and nurturing environment, we really see them thrive. As we age, that ability dampens, but another one emerges and flourishes: the ability to capture the whole picture, or analyze different sources of information. Harvard research finds that “perhaps this is the foundation of wisdom. It is as if, with age, your brain becomes better at seeing the entire forest and worse at seeing the leaves.”
So how do we take advantage of this information along our lifespan?
“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,” BBC Psychology states. Acquiring new information may become more difficult as we age, but not impossible. The potential is there, and once we achieve it, it becomes integrated into our other sources of information. Increased wisdom, perhaps?
We also know some ways to continue to exercise our cognitive abilities as adults with small but significant daily challenges. For example, switch hands each day to brush your teeth, take a new route to work every now and then, listen to a stimulating podcast as you drive, disconnect from electronic devices and connect to the present moment with your senses, and move your body in a meaningful way. Sleep, food, and positive social relationships help us stay young in body and mind. Learning new things requires not only cognitive abilities but also an open mind. Whether you underestimate or overestimate yourself in a new challenge, approach it with curiosity and see what happens. Listen and turn to others as you absorb new ideas that may be contrary to your own. Sometimes, the biggest block to learning is stubbornness — the inability to see beyond our habits and beliefs.
Start with curiosity. Remember that child you used to be? As you grew up, ideas and behaviors became ingrained in your personality because of circumstance, culture, socioeconomic status, and other factors. The combination of factors that make up a person are endless, and how we are shaped and defined as adults is like a big game of probability. Yet here you are — what will you do with your brain today?
Learning and unlearning are opposite and powerful tools as we evolve our brains and our self-concept to better serve ourselves and others. Follow that dream, learn that inspiring skill you did not have a chance to do before, and forget the idea that you can’t continue to store new information as you age. Everything is possible. In the words of Charles Dederich, each day is the beginning of the rest of your life. What do you want to learn today?