One of the most frustrating limits that we tend to put on ourselves is related to age. It’s ‘too late’ to pick up a new skill, learn a language to do all the things we never got around to in earlier years. However, there is plenty of evidence out there - research and anecdotal - to prove that you can teach an old dog new tricks, and in fact it might be easier than you think. Whatever you want to do next, and whatever age you are now, it’s never too late to learn.
The older brain still has incredible ability
There’s no doubt that as we get older we don’t have the same ability to pick up and retain new information as we may once have had. But the reality is that, whatever your age, your brain is still incredibly capable of mastering new skills. Look at the case of Priscilla Sitienei, a rural midwife from Kenya, who learned to read and write at the tender age of 90 because she wanted to make sure that she could communicate her experiences of life to the next generation. In fact, there are many examples of older people doing amazing and unexpected things with their brains, blowing away perceptions about what is possible. For example, a septuagenarian who learnt to recite all 10,565 lines of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Or Ernestine Shepherd, a competitive bodybuilder in her 70s who’s now in her 80s.
We underestimate the power of what we can do
Once of the biggest challenges when it comes to learning later in life is often the limits of our own confidence. We may not believe that we can do something after a certain age and so we simply don’t try. Some experiments have found that, as we age, we’re less willing to rely on our memories and will laboriously go through calculations to check an outcome, instead of recalling the answer from previous knowledge. This ‘memory avoidance’ can actually limit cognitive performance in daily activities.
Getting over the psychological barriers to learning
Once we essentially get out of our own way it often becomes possible to see some fast, widespread and deep effects, including a generally sharper mind. One study at the Center for Vital Longevity at the University of Texas at Dallas assigned two different groups to a schedule of 15 different activities over a period of time. Some had the opportunity to take on challenges and learn new skills that would take them outside of their comfort zone while others were given more passive tasks. The study found that the more active pastime of learning something new led to more efficient brain activity - the type of activity that you might be more used to finding in a younger brain. What’s particularly notable is that the impact of the shift in brain activity was long-lasting and continued for more than a year after the participants had taken on the more challenging tasks.
No matter what any of the old sayings might tell you it’s never too late to learn - and there could be some significant benefits for your brain in doing so.
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