You Can Teach an Old Dog New Tricks

This post is based on “Old dog, new tricks” in The Scientific Guide to a Better You: New Scientist: The Collection. The saying “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” has been around for a long, long time. Too long, in fact, to hold under the new findings in science. Neurogenesis continues as long as we live, as well as the ability to learn new things.

I had long believed that there was a critical age for language acquisition. The idea was that we were designed to pick up languages naturally at an early age. However, after the onset of puberty, the task became more difficult. A study by Ellen Bialystok at York University in Toronto, Canada, disabused me of this notion. She studied US census records that detailed the linguistic skills of more than 2 million Hispanic and Chinese immigrants. If there had been a “critical period” for learning a second language in infancy should have created a sharp difference between those who changed country in early childhood and those who were uprooted in adolescence. There was no sharp difference. Rather there was a very gradual decline with age among immigrants. This could reflect differences in environment as well as adults’ rusty brain circuits. It is not that old dogs can’t learn, but rather a matter of old dogs not expending the effort to learn.

Gary Marcus, a psychologist devoted himself to learning how to play the guitar when he was 38. He wrote a book on his experience titled Guitar Zero. Initially his family laughed at him, but eventually they saw that he was that he was making progress. Typically adults are impatient when learning to play a new instrument. They do not want to put up with the frustration associated with this learning, something to which most students adapt.

Another study by Uang Zang at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis focused on the acquisition of foreign accents in adults. When the adults were given recordings that mimicked the exaggerated baby talk of cooing mothers, the adults progressed quite rapidly.

Volunteers visiting Virginia Penhune’s lab at Concordia University in Montreal learned to press keys in a certain sequence, the adult volunteers outperformed the younger volunteers.

Juggling is a challenging ask of hand-eye coordination. Nearly 1,000 volunteers from all age groups learned to juggle over six training sessions. Although the 60 to 80-year olds started slowly, they soon caught up with the 30-year-olds. At the end of the six session all adults were juggling more confidently than the 5 to 10 year olds.

Adults also tend to hamper progress with their own perfectionism, whereas children jump onto tasks while adults are agonizing over the mechanics of movement. Adults tend to conceptualize exactly what is required. Gabriele Wulf of the University of Nevada at Las Vegas says “Adults think so much more about what they are doing. Children just copy what they see.” Wulf’s work shows that we should focus on the outcome of our actions rather than on the intricacies of movement. Similarly overly rigid practice regimes can stifle long term learning. For example, it is better to shoot around the court, rather than trying to perfect a shot from a particular position. Even if one really feels compelled to do this, they should intersperse their shooting with shots from different positions on the court.

We also may have a tendency to lose confidence as we get older, and this can have a big impact on performance. In one study half the students were given a sham test on pitching a ball in which they were told that their performance was above average. They performed better on a test than a ground that had practiced but had not been given sham feedback.

One of the big problems we adults have is finding time to learn. We work, have errands and commitments to others including our families. However, babies have all the time in the world to learn. Food, drink, even their personal hygiene is taking care of for them. Gradually some obligations develop, but some of them regard learning and they still have gobs of time to learn. When we are freed of these obligations, we adults should not forget to take advantage of this additional time to learn new things and to engage in new pursuits.

To address the short amount of time that working adults have, the cognitive scientist Ed Cooke has developed a website, memrise.com that works to integrate learning into the adult day and to take some of the pain out of testing.

It is also important to remember that exercise is important and the amount of exercise can be fairly modest. (See the healthymemory blog post, “To improve your memory, build you hippocampus.”)

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