A backstage entrance into the world of neuroscience and academia.

Learning with an adult brain

I was raised by wonderful people, who every time they were encouraged to learn something new used to repeat a slightly modified version of the known saying: “You can’t teach new tricks to an old dog”.

Fun fact: The Latin-American version of this idiom is: “Chango viejo no aprende maroma nueva”, which literally means: “An old monkey can’t learn a new acrobatic stunt”.

Mom couldn’t use the ATM because “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”. Dad couldn’t learn how to pay bills online, because of the same thing. Grandma couldn’t use the internet to communicate with her grandchildren more easily, you guessed why. 

I’m trying to challenge such an idea. Because I think we all underestimate the power of our brain. Particularly the “old” brain.

As expected, I set off to find evidence to back up my challenge, whilst bringing my theory to test, which by the way, would represent the beginning of my disrupted resolution of 2020: learn SQL, a data management tool that I really would benefit from. 

It’s been only a few weeks of online self-learning mainly from 4-hour long YouTube videos and I find myself continuously asking: “Am I that old dog who can’t learn anything new? Maybe I’m not in my prime anymore? Is this thing hard to learn or is there something wrong with me? I should’ve learned this while in college or high school. It might have been easier for my younger brain to make sense out of this.”

In desperate times, I even asked Google when was it that Bill Gates started to code. AT THIRTEEN. AND IN THE SIXTIES! Not quite the answer I needed. “But wait, he’s a genius”, I thought, and I really don’t see myself creating software or being a billionaire. My goals are simple: clean the data mess I currently own with my endless excel datasheets, and breathe a little bit easier knowing everything is properly categorized and stored. Do I even stand a chance?

The answer is yes. Yes, I have a chance. And, you do, too.

First, we are not old at 30, even though some mornings my knees say otherwise. Second, there are people learning programming skills in their 80’s, as evidenced in demographics data from Codecademy, an interactive platform that teaches programming languages. Third, let me tell you about Neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity is the ability our neurons possess to make new connections and modify existing ones when required by, for example, learning (and other stimuli, most notably, when there’s damage and some of our neurons die, other neurons adapt to perform the tasks the now absent neurons used to do. Isn’t that awesome?!). As we live our lives our brains are actively getting new input, provoking neuroplastic changes that might only stop happening during certain neurodegenerative diseases or well, if you die. All this to say that we do have the ability to learn throughout every year of our lives.

Although it will probably take more effort for us non-young sponges, it has been shown that regardless of our age, our brain has always had an amazing ability to learn and even master whatever skill we set our mind to. Most importantly, that extra effort might have a higher impact on our overall cognitive health as shown in a study by Chan et al in which they prove that learning how to use an iPad improved episodic memory and their information processing speed in a group of relatively old people (they were between 60-90 years old but I can’t get myself to label a 60 year old person as “old”, excuse me). 

So what I have gathered so far is a mix of good and bad news: I’m an adult now. 

Accumulated experience is on my side now. The brain connections I already have from my background are things I didn’t have when I first went to school, when I was probably suffering from the known Dunning-Kruger effect and plain overconfidence. 

Gladly, these connections are not only due to a certain degree of knowledge in science, I have also learned about myself. I already know how to learn in an efficient way. I know what distracts me and I know, even though I often choose to ignore it, how to remain focused. I also have learned humility to accept that I don’t know everything and unpretentiousness towards the big unknown. 

What is not on my side is, well, being a responsible member of society. I (very gratefully) have an apartment to tidy, a dog to walk and play with, a life partner to spend quality time with, errands to run, actual running, food to cook, payments to make and that thing that allows me almost all the previous: a paying job. Getting deeper and real, I’m also very self-conscious, I’m afraid of failure and I might not be great at remembering good stuff, but do I remember negative past learning experiences! So that is not quite playing in my favor. 

Learning anything new at my age does not only involve the actual new skill itself, but it’s composed of so many emotions and feelings that most of us have been culturally advised to either ignore or bury them so deep inside that nobody, especially ourselves, can find them.

The good thing overall is, science has got our backs and now we know that the older you get, your brain has the same ability to learn. We just have to actually try it.

Before ending, let me tell you a secret. Turns out learning a new skill is a long process, and if you do it right, you’ll probably be in it forever! I still have very little SQL knowledge but I know more than I did when I started writing this, and that not only feels good but it also made me realize I can actually learn new stuff and I will continue to do so as long as my brain is with me. 

My actual dog learning actual new tricks. Maybe.

So, if you are going through the same or if you are thinking about starting that new thing you have always wanted to learn, I’m here to tell you this:

Let’s not allow old sayings to keep us from learning. You and your brain got this.

A big thank you to Katrina Deane and Lorena Morton for editing this piece. 

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