Psychology of Skill-Building: Does learning become more challenging as we age?
Most of us are familiar with the age-old mindset that you “can’t teach an old dog new tricks” or that “old habits die hard”. Some of us may even know of someone in the latter half of their life who is too stubborn to change their ways or learn new things. These ways of thinking, although are backed by some scientific evidence, do not necessarily mean we cannot keep growing and learning throughout our lives. In fact, there is enough evidence to prove that with the right environment and mindset, anyone can pick up new skills and create new habits at any age.
The pessimistic view that our minds can only learn up until a certain age has prevailed for centuries and can be dated back to the Ancient Greeks. Aristotle was the first to compare human memory to a wax tablet. From birth, the wax is hot and malleable and as it cools it becomes hard and brittle, unable to form distinct impressions, our memory suffering as a result. This mentality has informed the research done by doctors and neuroscientists alike for centuries. Although there are undeniable challenges that come with growing older such as difficulty recalling names or words, difficulty multitasking and paying attention for prolonged periods. All are considered normal for an aging brain due to decreased blood flow, potential inflammation, and slower communication between neurons. A study performed at Brown University comparing the learning habits of 19-30 year olds to that of 67-79 year olds found that “the systems for filtering out irrelevant stimuli were indeed weaker in older learners”. This does not even mention the lack of confidence or even test anxiety that may be prevalent in these studies. While there may be new challenges that come with growing older, this does not mean that we are incapable of expanding our minds well into our old age.
There are many aspects of life that we can only get better at with age and experience, such as complex reasoning skills and verbal abilities. Older people generally have a sharper vocabulary and are better at making tough decisions because they are less prone to being swayed by emotion. As well, the amygdala (responsible for memory and emotion) is less responsive to negative stimuli and there are lower levels of testosterone found in men and women over 60, meaning older brains are typically better at impulse control. With clearer thinking patterns it seems as if learning new things and forming new habits might even be easier with age.
“Older people have a greater capacity for empathy because empathy is learned and refined as we age”. - Amanda Enayati, CNN
Overall, it is generally good for cognitive health to learn new things, at any age. Creative endeavours such as painting, drawing, making music, etc. have also proven to help slow the decline of an aging brain. Newer research suggests that older brains may actually have advanced abilities when it comes to design and innovation, due to the wisdom and life experience that older people possess. With more life experience comes a broader understanding of the world and the people in it. “Older people have a greater capacity for empathy because empathy is learned and refined as we age”, states Amanda Enayati of CNN.
It is also important to note that factors such as environment and mental state play a huge role when it comes to learning new things. As children, we are constantly being taught by everyone and everything around us, providing a pretty strong environment to take in new information. Whereas, adults over 60 generally are past the point in their lives where learning is even necessary. Not to mention, the embarrassment of trying something new and not being good at it is not something that most adults like to face. Learning is simply less common the older one gets. Therefore, it is important to maintain not only consistency with learning, but an open mindset towards new ideas and possibilities that may go against what one already knows.
There are a few tips that most people can follow to ensure good cognitive health well into adulthood. These include exercise, staying active and maintaining good food habits, staying creative, and most of all staying open. Challenging one’s own ideas and habitual patterns to seek out what is new and different is the key to consistent learning. Sometimes our own mentalities and beliefs can be our greatest obstacles, and this still remains true for adults over 60.
It is important to remember to value the wisdom that comes with more life experience, and to create ways in which it can be shared. Like Hello Jack for example, a multi-generational skill-sharing platform in which we prioritize the preserving of such wisdom out of respect and admiration for those in older generations. Keeping in mind that people of all ages learn and process information in different ways and at different paces. Perhaps teaching old dogs new tricks is not as hard as the old phrase implies, so long as we prioritize community and looking after one another.