One of These Two Can Learn New Tricks
Hint: It's not the dog.
Note: Sorry about the delivery delay this week. We had tech issues on this end. Next week we’re back to our usual Saturday morning delivery.
It’s widely acknowledged that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Good thing you’re not a dog. You, by contrast, possess a brain capable of learning new stuff for as long as you keep breathing. (Scientists didn’t think that was true until recently. Now they consider it a solid fact.)
It would serve you well if you did keep learning. When your brain actively learns new things it’s growing, staying sharp, and fighting the good fight against the wear and tear of aging.
What Science Once Thought About the Brain
Until several decades ago, the scientific consensus was that once a human’s brain was fully developed, it stopped growing and only declined as a person aged. Scientists also believed that the brain was divided into specific zones, each of which performed a specific function independently. It was a tidy theory, orderly and neat, like an organization chart with separate departments performing their specialized tasks.
But the results of some experiments in the past 30 years have made scientists rethink the theory of the static, compartmentalized brain. One of the most significant was a Dutch study of 340 centenarians who were living independently and in good cognitive health. Researchers performed brain autopsies on 44 of the group who died during the study. Many of the brains had the tell-tale signs of Alzheimer’s disease – but that was true even of those who had remained mentally sharp until their deaths. How is it that some brains could withstand the ravages of Alzheimer’s, with little or no impact?
What Science Now Thinks About the Brain
This study, along with other puzzling experimental results, led scientists to propose a new theory, known as cognitive reserve. This theory posits that when one part of the brain is damaged, the brain can often find ways to rewire its circuitry to replace what was damaged. According to this theory, the cognitively healthy elders whose brains showed significant signs of Alzheimer’s had enough cognitive reserve to bypass the damaged portions impacted by Alzheimer’s for many years.
Scientists now have demonstrated that the brain continues to produce neurons, the cells that receive inputs from outside the brain and send out chemical and electrical signals to other cells. When part of the brain is not functioning, these neurons may “learn” to forge new neural pathways that enable the brain to recover function in new ways. Scientists call this neuroplasticity.
What You Now Think About the Brain
Just to be clear: neuroplasticity, or cognitive reserve, is not a gift. It’s a potential gift. It’s available to you, but you have to work to get the benefit.
Neuroplasticity, it seems, goes both ways. It’s use it or lose it. What happens physically when you don’t exercise regularly is obvious; muscle turns to mush or, as we prefer to call it, fat. Not a good look. The same thing happens with the brain. If you don’t exercise it regularly, your gray matter and your white matter and anything else that matters heads straight for the “lose it” bin. Also not a good look.
But all mental exercise is not created equal. Scientists used to think it was healthy to do crossword puzzles and listen to classical music. Not that there’s anything wrong with either, but they don’t seem to make much difference in keeping the brain sharp. What your brain seems to need is to stretch by trying things that are new.
This goes back to those neural pathways again. If you do what you’ve always done, there’s no pain and no gain, and the brain keeps traveling along those well-worn neural pathways that might as well be paved. But if you give your mind a mental stretch by learning something complex and new, you enable your brain to create new neural pathways. Aging may diminish some brain functions, but if you’re constantly creating new pathways, your brain has a way to compensate and remain agile.
Just like physical exercise, the best brain exercise presents a challenge. It takes you outside your comfort zone and into the “enhancement” zone.
Here are some sample stretches: Learn a foreign language. (If Spanish is too easy, try Greek, or calculus.) Learn a new software program. Figure out Bitcoin. Figure out what the heck the Metaverse is about. Learn to play a musical instrument. Invent a new tool. Invent a better alternative to nursing homes. Take classes. Play new, challenging games. Volunteer.
And continue to be social. Engaging with other people, like other challenging activities, requires different facets of the brain to work together.
Just don’t tell yourself you’re too old to learn anything new. One, it’s not true, and two, the end result won’t be a good look.
Other Bits of Business
Don’t miss our latest podcast, on Facing Down Your Inner Mafia with personal coach Ana Tampanna, plus an essay on preparing for “retirement” by Amy L. Bernstein.
Special Heads-up: I’ll be making a special announcement next week about a new and exciting development at The EndGame. Watch for it!