If you are anything like me, you may have thought to yourself over the years, Man, I really wish I would have learned another language in high school, or wondered, Why didn’t my mother put me in guitar lessons? Now I’ll never be able to learn how to play. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, right?
This common misconception couldn’t be further from the truth, and older minds are still very much capable of learning and mastering new skills.
Emerging studies in psychology and neuroscience are now proving this very fact. They are also showing that continuing to learn and experience new things may actually help you to maintain good mental health and cognitive functioning as you age. It’s time to reconsider any previously held beliefs that we are simply incapable of learning new things after a certain age.
Where Did This Assumption Come From?
This pessimistic view of the ageing mind can perhaps be traced back to the ancient Greeks. In his treatise De Memoria et Reminiscentia, Aristotle compared our memories to a wax tablet; at birth the wax is hot and pliable and can take on whatever shape you give it, but as it begins to slowly cool down, it becomes tough and brittle, making it difficult to mould or imprint upon.
Enter the Exciting Realm of Neuroplasticity
Neuroplasticity refers to “the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. Neuroplasticity allows the neurons (nerve cells) in the brain to compensate for injury and disease and to adjust their activities in response to new situations or to changes in their environment.”
This essentially means that the brain is capable of regenerating new cells, a process once thought to be impossible. The concept of neuroplasticity is not new, but the ability to observe it in action is, thanks to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology, which has allowed us to confirm the incredible morphing ability of the brain.
Even though your brain may become a bit more plastic as you age, certain practices can trigger neuroplasticity and regenerate brain cells.
How to Encourage Neuroplasticity
Change happens when you make the effort and are motivated to learn. This conscious effort causes the brain to release the neurochemicals necessary to facilitate change. In other words, you have to have interest in what you are doing; it has to be something that you truly want and desire for yourself. The harder you try and the more motivated and the more alert you are, the greater that change will be.
Every single instance of learning strengthens and stabilizes the brain. So, every time your brain strengthens a connection to the mastery of a skill, it will also weaken connections to neurons that weren’t being used at that moment. This helps to change or erase some irrelevant or interfering activity within the brain.
It is important to remember that neuroplasticity is a two-way street. While you can wasily create positive changes, you can also create negative ones just as easily. This is important to keep in mind every time negative self-talk comes up or you tell yourself that you can’t do something. You are just convincing yourself that you can’t and your brain takes note of that, which means you’ll have to reprogram that belief system first in order to accomplish whatever you thought was impossible for yourself.
Amazing Example of the Capacity of an Older Mind
In 1993, John Basinger decided to memorize the 12 books, 10,565 lines, and 60,000 words that comprise the second edition of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Nine years later, he achieved his goal, performing the poem from memory over a three-day period.
In some recent experiments, Dayna Touron from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro showed that adults aged 60 and over frequently underestimate the power of their own memories, and this lack of confidence — not lack of ability — prevents them from harnessing the full capacity of their minds.
In one study in particular, Touron’s participants were asked to compare a reference table of simple word pairings with a second list and then identify which words had not appeared on the original table. She saw that the older participants were more reluctant to rely on their memory and chose instead to cross reference the two tables, despite this method taking much longer. They seemed unsure of whether they could actually remember the pairs, so without even trying, opted for the more time consuming strategy.
A Lesson in Remembering How Capable We Really Are
This really goes to show that we are capable of anything, so long as we put our minds to it (no pun intended). Instead of just assuming that you won’t be able to do something, try believing in yourself, and then dedicating some time to it, and see how it goes. If you want something badly enough, you can and will achieve it. We are more powerful than we realize, and it’s time to start acting like it!