The old adage “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” has some interesting implications when applied to humans through the lens of something called neuroplasticity, which is essentially how malleable, dynamic and flexible the neurons (brain cells) in our brain are. This is directly related to the phenomenon of learning. Although, one must wonder when it comes to canines if sometimes the older dog truly can’t learn new tricks, or is simply just too old to care or try!
For me, this raises a few questions:
- What is it about getting older that makes it harder for us to learn new things?
- Or is this just a thought put into our heads and are we perhaps not giving our magnificent brains enough credit?
- And what does this say about the period of time while we are young and supposedly able to “learn new tricks”?
- Why is it easier to learn when we are younger?
Every species must learn certain skills to adapt and survive, and if put in the position where an organism, dog or human, must learn a certain skill to survive then it’s either adapt or perish, regardless of age or species. Human beings have developed a biosphere where they are no longer at threat to be randomly attacked and eaten by a saber tooth tiger or stomped on by a wooly mammoth, thus, we have the option to engage in higher learning.
Research shows that the structures of our neurons are not static and stationary at any age. As we practice and refine our skills (be they related to math, languages, art, or athletics) our brains literally change inside of our heads.
It is a dynamic system and the spiderweb like connection of neurons with their axons and dendrites are always in constant flux and moving. Such dynamic flexibility lasts well into the late stages of adulthood. Increased flexibility in the structure and scaffolding of our brain means higher potential to integrate new information and keep learning!
In fact, Carol Dweck, a Psychologist at Stanford University and author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, has developed a theory called the Growth Mindset. She has shown that when people are simply educated about how the brain changes over time as you learn, as they begin to believe that the brain is like a muscle that grows with use, they begin to learn faster and perform better in school – without any other intervention (i.e., they don't receive additional tutoring, etc.). Why does this happen? It probably happens because when you believe that your brain can expand and acquire new knowledge, vs. believing your IQ and general ability to do well in school are fundamentally fixed at birth (which Dweck calls the “fixed mindset”), you engage with material in your classes in a new way. You proactively engage in an effort to expand your intelligence. This, then, leads to actual learning and the creation of new neural connections deep inside your brain.
Thus, there’s hope yet for both young and old in having the capacity to keep learning new things so long as we take advantage of how beautifully fluid and dynamic the brain stays well into adulthood.
Let’s take a closer look at how this actually happens…
It is said that memory, the hallmark of learning, is the product of information storage through the development and preservation of an intricate distribution of brain cell connections (called a “synaptic trace”) that become imprinted through experiences (Ajemian et al., 2013). It is also said that these traces become further reinforced and stabilized through repetitive stimulation, ultimately leading to that response becoming the default pathway in the brain. Essentially, habits are hard to break.
My Dad would always tell me that habits are hard to break because if you take away the “h” you’re left with “a bit” and if you took away the “a” you would still have a “bit” and finally, when you take away the “b” and you’re still left with “it”! But fear not, modern science has proposed progressive new schemas and theories that dispute the idea that once these connections between our brain cells are put into place, they become somewhat “cemented” there, thus leaving us victim to our habits.
New research puts the power and the responsibility back into our hands! The new school of thought states that these connections between our brain cells are non-stationary, fluctuating arrangements that systematically produce responses or outputs that would be the same as the fixed system design (the cemented design).
What does this mean?
Well, first of all, it means that even though our intricate connection of brain cells are constantly moving around up there, we still get the right information to where it needs to go! That much is great news.
But the better news is because they are constantly moving, they are easier to restructure and reprogram so we can build new habits, change old ones and acquire new skills!
As I had mentioned, there exists a particularly sensitive period in humans as well as other species that shows a far more remarkable potential for plasticity relative to other stages in their life. This is defined as the imprinting period or the “critical period”. It is during this period that the brain rapidly process and adapts to infinite dimensions of new sensory stimuli, all of which essentially have “free range” to stimulate and imprint the vast number of highly sensitive neurons in an offspring’s brain. At this time the offspring mimics the behavior of their parents and develops crucial skills needed for interspecies communication and survival.
For example, children have the remarkable ability to learn a multitude of languages. In all my years tutoring it still amazes me when I meet children that know four, five, even six languages! While adults can of course learn new languages, it tends to be much more difficult for them to do so.
Thus, it is crucial during this time of high plasticity to keep children engaged and learning as to take advantage of these neurological events.
Toddler or doctor, third-grader or aerospace engineers, we all have the ability to harness the plastic potential of our own brains. We have been in more control than we once thought, over the learning capacity of our own brains.
The dynamical systems theory (constantly moving brain cells and their connections) provides much hope in the arena of neurodegenerative disorders as well such as Autism Spectrum Disorder.
So keep your brain stimulated!
About the Author
Gaurav Dubey is a biology, chemistry, mathematics, and ACT/SAT tutor from Naperville, IL who has worked with MyGuru for several years. He attended the University of Miami, where he earned his B.S. in Biology and his B.A. in Philosophy. He went on to earn his Master's of Science in Biotechnology at Rush University before working at the John P. Hussman Institute for Human Genomics and creating his first scholarly publication on using stem cells to create neurological disease models. Recently, he was accepted to the University of Miami's Miller School of Medicine to earn his PhD as a PIBS (Program in Biological Sciences Student).
He is also the founder of The Biolitics Podcast, a show aimed at discussing modern day, hot button biopolitical and bioethical issues that are in constant debate. More than just a show, BIOLITICS is a movement that attempts to make science more accessible to everyone in hopes of inspiring minds, both young and old everywhere, to view the world through the lens of the natural born scientist we all have within us.