Never too old to learn


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. 

Microglia, key to understanding learning?

Fascinating article in New Scientist on the roles of neurons, astrocytes and microglia in the functioning of the brain.  Microglia were long though to lay dormant most of the time, only to spur into action in case of brain defects.  As so often, better data collection is revealing that these ‘elements’ play a much bigger role than thought:

As master multitaskers, microglia play many different roles. On the one hand, they are the brain’s emergency workers, swarming to injuries and clearing away the debris to allow healing to begin. On the other hand, during times of rest, they are its gardeners and caretakers, overseeing the growth of new neurons, cultivating new connections and pruning back regions that threaten to overgrow. They may also facilitate learning, by preparing the ground for memories to form.


Three elements of the brain ( (C) New Scientist)

Three elements of the brain ( (C) New Scientist)


Interestingly, there are hints that these microglia play an important role in memory and learning (as well as in diseases like Alzheimer’s and autism).  This role is just beginning to emerge.

For instance, besides pruning synapses, microglia cultivate their development, by secreting nutrients called growth factors that promote the sprouting of new neural connections. And once the synapse is formed, they may monitor and tweak the receptors that help pass messages between two neurons. Such changes, dubbed synaptic plasticity, fine-tune the communication across neural networks, and are thought to be a key mechanism for learning. Indeed, Tremblay has found signs of high microglial activity in the hippocampus – a brain region that is central to memory.

It will be fascinating to see how neuroscience will affect our theories of learning and pedagogies.  It makes me wonder whether neuroscience doesn’t deserve more attention in education courses, such as the MAODE?