Never too old to learn

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photo credit: VOA

Old dogs don’t learn new tricks, goes the saying.  But is the popular belief backed up by evidence?  Higher propensity to learn seems to correlate rather with environmental factors rather than with neurological ones.  New Scientist recently (24 May 2013) featured an overview of the research, debunking the myth.

Environmental factors are more important than age in successful learning.  Children have more time to focus on learning, benefit from superior pedagogies and more personal attention.

Many researchers believe that an adult’s lifestyle may be the biggest obstacle. “A child’s sole occupation is learning to speak and move around,” says Ed Cooke, a cognitive scientist who has won many memory contests. “If an adult had that kind of time to spend on attentive learning, I’d be very disappointed if they didn’t do a good job.”

One study by Yang Zhang at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis that focused on the acquisition of foreign accents in adults suggests we may simply be suffering from poor tuition. When the researchers gave them recordings that mimicked the exaggerated baby talk of cooing mothers, the adult learners progressed rapidly.

Physical condition plays a big role in ability to learn, explaining the often perceived correlation between age and learning ability.

Over the past few years, it has become clear that poor physical fitness – including factors such as obesity and cardiovascular health – can be as damaging to our brains as they are to our sex appeal, reducing the long-distance connections between neurons and shrinking the hippocampus, which is involved in learning and memory.

This holds some lessons for adults trying to learn new skills and knowledge:

Children are continually quizzed on what they know – and for good reason: countless studies have shown that testing doubles long-term recall, outperforming all other memory tactics. Yet most adults attempting to learn new skills will rely more on self-testing which, let’s be honest, happens less often.

Adults can hamper progress with their own perfectionism: whereas children throw themselves into tasks, adults often agonise over the mechanics of the movements, trying to conceptualise exactly what is required. Instead, you do better to take a carousel approach, quickly rotating through the different skills to be practised without lingering too long on each one. 

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