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When Do We Really Stop Learning? The Wonderful World of Neuroplasticity

woman-reading

Research suggests that by age 25 our brains tend to get “lazy”, relying less on traditional styles of learning with our brain just looking for patterns instead. According to Tara Swart, a senior lecturer at MIT, our brains simply “choose the most energy efficient path” if we let it, rather than studying and retaining information the traditional way. This switch in learning and coping approach at the age of 25 has been commonly used as shorthand for when our brain starts to solidify its habits, beliefs and thought patterns, and therefore has been misunderstood as the age at which we “stop learning”.

 

Questions surrounding the age at which we stop learning have been long posited amongst academics, parents and teachers for decades now. Ideas surrounding benchmarks for certain ages mean that there is always a curve to grade you or your child against, but how accurate are they really? Contrary to popular belief, you actually can teach an old dog new tricks.

 

The reason behind this stems from how the brain works to learn new information and form new habits. This is a process called neuroplasticity where our brains are always growing and changing, creating new links, new habits and new beliefs, through repetition and action. 

 

Now, this isn’t particularly groundbreaking or surprising – think about when we’re children and first starting to learn social skills and basic educational structures, such as the alphabet. This is all done via immersion and repetition. We learn by example and we learn via near constant reinforcement. That’s how we acquire language in the first place, although linguists have much more complicated theories that support this idea. The odd thing is as we get  older we just stop doing those necessary actions that actually make new skills and knowledge stick. 

 

See, as we learn, our brain begins to make emotional connections regarding certain situations. Physically, this materialises through the creation and strengthening of the neural pathways that connect the rational, modern prefrontal cortex with the older, more emotional caveman brain which our newer brain grew around as a result of millennia of evolution. These emotionally charged learning opportunities create and strengthen these neural pathways the more they’re used and repeated. The stronger they are, the faster and more automatic the associated reaction is communicated, until it becomes either a habit or a belief, such as brushing your teeth, or believing that if you’re good you’ll be rewarded.

 

Fundamentally, these neural pathways underpin who we are as humans.

 

What our beliefs are, what our hobbies are, what brings us joy or pain – these are the information superhighways that bring our personalities to life. They’re also fundamental to how we learn and the behaviours that we internalise. 

 

The beauty of these neural pathways is that they’re always changings transforming, falling into disrepair or strengthening based on the experiences we have in life. The more experiences reinforce a certain belief or habit, the stronger that neural pathway is going to be. This isn’t always a positive thing because a lot of the time it’s these rigid beliefs that get in the way of us learning new things, not our actual, physical ability.

 

There’s a phrase often associated with elderly people “they’re too stuck in their ways”. Whilst some people might genuinely be irritatingly stubborn, the majority of this statement actually stems from the neurological principle that older people have been reinforcing their beliefs for so long that it’s going to take an equal amount of time and effort to change their position or beliefs. 

 

So, if a person had convinced themselves that they could never be able to play the guitar even if they tried, then the brain is going to remind them of the experiences that led to this belief. This might be a music teacher that scolded them, an attempt in front of friends that went wrong, or being told you’re just tone deaf. 

 

When this happens, the associated emotions of sadness, anger, frustration come to the forefront until you’re fully reminded that playing the guitar is a negative experience for you so why would you want to continue. The fact that you’ve barely tried or put in the hours of practise necessary to succeed, doesn’t mentally come into play here. Your beliefs end up limiting your ability to learn and grow. Whilst it’s true that our ability to learn does slow down as we get older, it’s not impossible to gain and retain new skills and knowledge, but our brain is getting in our way. 

 

As a child, on the whole, we do as we’re told, we don’t have as many ingrained beliefs because we haven’t had the amount of experiences necessary to reinforce them, therefore our brains are more malleable. Our cognitive functioning; our memory, our reactions, our focus, are all things that need near constant attention and upkeep to keep operating at the highest level. If we slump into a routine where our brain is on autopilot and nothing new or exciting happens, our cognitive functions simply don’t have to pay attention. When we’re a child everything is new or exciting so our cognitive functioning is highly stimulated, meaning we retain information more deeply, in our hippocampus- or long term memory.

 

The key to learning is the same as it always was, repetition and stimulation.

 

If something is boring or monotonous our brain switches off our TPN or task positive network and turns on our DMN or default mode network which is what makes us daydream, ruminate and hypothesize. The bottom line is we’re not paying attention so we miss out on the new information altogether. The reason repetition works is that it strengthens those neural connections, ultimately building long lasting habits that are automatic. For example, if someone is speaking to us in a foreign language and we automatically understand what they’re saying because we’ve been practicing that language for years. But all this requires conscious action and reinforced practice.

 

On the other hand, we can also lose knowledge through this method. Just as neural pathways are strengthened with repeated use and maintenance, if you stop believing something or stop doing a hobby that you used to do a lot, those neural connections will weaken and fall into disrepair. For example, in high school we could recall algebraic formulas with relative ease, because we were using them day-in, day-out, but now that we haven’t had to use them for years, we struggle to remember them. That neural pathway hasn’t been maintained, and therefore that memory struggles to be recalled. 

 

That’s often why it feels as if we lose the ability to learn when we’re older. When we were younger, we were in school for the majority of our time, an institution with learning as it’s sole purpose. When we graduate and head into the workplace, it’s about putting what we already know into practice, and whilst there are still systems to be learned, we’re not actively practicing and repeating new things. Instead, you start getting into a routine, you’re figuring out easier or quicker ways to do things until your brain just goes into autopilot. The stimulation disappears. And it doesn’t reappear once you retire. Without a routine you try to fill your days, but increasingly, they all seem to blur together. Your brain is on cruise control, so when you try to remember something or try to learn something new, it can take a while for your cognitive functioning to catch up to your intentions. 

 

In order to combat this, we have to continually keep our cognitive skills maintained with concrete action. The type of action itself is largely inconsequential. There have been studies where older people who frequently did sudoku and crossword puzzles had much better cognitive functioning, including memory and focus, than those who didn’t. This is because these puzzles activate our TPN by focusing on one task with our full attention. Our brain is engaged, so we’re actively utilising neural pathways to  find the patterns and the information that we need to complete the puzzle. These activities are low stress and can be done by most age groups, but they keep our cognitive functioning maintained, rather than letting them fall into disrepair, our knowledge and habits with them, which is why these slow, metal puzzles have been linked to a decrease in Alzheimer’s and dementia symptoms, as well as speed of decline.  

 

It’s all about keeping our brain busy and active.

 

If we allow it to get dormant that’s when our cognitive skills suffer and we struggle to retain information. So it’s less about a specific age where our learning abilities start to decline instead it’s more about when we suffer from prolonged periods of inactivity, monotony and lack of stimulation that drives low learning and recollection levels. 

 

So, in order to keep your wits about you and continue to be able to learn new skills, languages, sports, hobbies long into your old age, the solution is simple: take actual action and continue to do so. Continue to challenge yourself with new things and new experiences that keeps your TPN turned on and those new neural pathways growing strong. It can be easy to get swept up in the monotony of our daily routines, but if you take time to be present and really notice and focus on what’s going on, your cognitive functioning, and therefore your memory and capacity for learning, is going to be firing for much, much longer, giving you the opportunity to enjoy a more fulfilled, positive, happier life.