Learning, the acquisition of skills and information, starts around a month before you are born and continues throughout your life. So why does it seem harder to learn as we grow older?
To understand that we need to understand how learning works as a physical process in the brain. As we learn our brains make new and stronger connections, called synapses, between individual brain cells. During times of active learning these new and strengthened connections outnumber those that are naturally broken or decay.
However once a new synapse is established it needs to be used or it will decay too. This is a process called myelination, where the protective myelin sheath around the synapse increases every time that connection is used. The myelin sheath not only protects but improves the conductivity of the synapse, making it work faster as its use increases.
This physical process doesn’t change over time. What makes it harder to learn as we grow old isn’t inevitable then – it’s about our behaviour than the properties of our brains. Fundamentally the reason we don’t learn as well as when we were children is because we forget how we learned then, and use much less useful techniques instead.
An example might be learning a new physical skill, such as a golf swing. As adults we tend to focus on individual details, and attempt to understand and master them as components of the overall skill – for instance with a golf swing elements within the grip or the stance. However as children we learn motor skills quite differently, through attempting to achieve the outcome – in this case hitting the golf ball successfully – rather than focusing on individual elements.
If we learn as we did as children then we can continue to learn successfully throughout life. This mental exercise is also supported by physical exercise, as that has an effect on the physical structure of the brain. Forty minutes of physical exercise, repeated three times a week, has been shown to increase the size of the hippocampus, a region of the brain that grows new neurons as we learn.
This capacity doesn’t diminish as we grow older, and it’s actually our approach to learning that starts to hold us back. For instance we develop a tendency to cut corners, partly because we believe that we know certain things anyway, including the best way to learn. In fact we tend to forget the good habits that we had that made our earlier learning so successful.
There isn’t a magic wand to help improve our learning as we grow older, and the recipe is the same as ever – focus your attention; engage your memory to build those new connections; and then shortly after actively try to recall, reinforcing and strengthening that connection. When recalling the information structuring that as questions that you have to answer is much more powerful than just a straight recall, and actively linking it to existing knowledge will also reinforce the new learning.
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