When Does Human Learning Slow Down?
It’s a lot earlier than you think!
I’ve read that once most people graduate from their last institution of formal education, they rarely learn anything new again. Some people are finished with formal education when they graduate from high school. Others go on to pursue various degrees of higher education. It really makes no difference, however.
Once formal education is completed, learning new things drops off.
For the rest of our lives, we tend to avoid mastering a new skill, learning a new language, to swim, or play the piano, for example. Most people never free up the time nor muster up the interest to delve into something new and different. The older we get, the less likely it will be that we master German or the viola, for example.
In fact, as early as twelve years old, it becomes increasingly more difficult every year thereafter to master a second language.
It’s as though everything that contributed to our growth as a human being took place in one intense little time period. If we were unable or unwilling to take advantage of the opportunities offered, then we missed our chance.
Don’t get me wrong. Adults can be forced to learn new skills.
They may be required to expand their skills for their job or figure out how to use a new fangled gadget, but beyond that, the majority of humans are ready to relax at the end of the day with a beer and a football game.
The interest in learning new things just isn’t that strong.
There are always exceptions to the rule, of course. Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote the entire Little House on the Prairie series after age sixty. She’d never published a thing prior to that. If you’ve never written a book, you have no idea the dedication required. Most people will never write a book. They may even have a great story idea, but the book will never materialize.
Of course, there are those rare individuals who are interested in so many things that they are forever and enthusiastically learning something new.
There simply isn’t enough time in the day to explore all of their interests. They often become proficient at a language or at playing the viola as well as carpentry, writing a book, and painting. These gifted folks are good at a vast array of things and make it look so easy. For them it might be.
The average person tends to have far fewer interests which we refer to as hobbies. Often, however, the interest in a particular hobby started way back in high school even younger.
People often say that money doesn’t make you happy. And, I agree with that. Yet, if a child is born into a family of means, they are often introduced to many more learning opportunities and experiences than poor kids. They grow up with a tool kit full of gained knowledge. The family money provides numerous priviledges. These kids apply to good universities with the equivalent of resumes. You know, an accomplished pianist, fluent in two languages, with a 4.0 grade average, and summers abroad. Not everyone is privy to so many experiences. All those years leading up to adulthood as our brains are developing are so valuable. Incidentally, our brains are developing until about age twenty-five.
So why is it that our brains seem to slow down as we age?
Research suggests that as early as age 25 our brains get “lazy.” It’s not that we can’t learn new things, but we start to rely upon a number of neuro pathways to do our thinking. Our brains get stuck.
Here’s a fun article explaining this phenomenon.
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I’m now well beyond my peak learning age. In fact, it could mostly be downhill from now on out. To combat this inevitable decline, I challenge my brain in a couple of ways.
First of all, I’ve learned a second langauge and am forced to use it whenever I’m in Spain where I’ve been wintering for the past 17 years.
Trust me, the vast majority of American expats who are my age can never have close friends in their new home abroad because they refuse to learn the language. They depend almost entirely on a local expat community for their social life where everyone speaks English. What a waste of a wonderful brain-boosting opportunity not to mention the chance to thoroughly immerse one’s self in diversity of thought.
A different perspective creates a different world view.
A different world view challenges our own world view. Contrary to popular opinion a fixed perspective, one set decades ago by our culture, isn’t particularly helpful to the brain.
Wanna boost your brain power, learn a second language.
The Brain Benefits of Learning a Second Language
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The second thing that I do is travel internationally.
I don’t do cruises or tour guides. I travel alone and am forced to figure out maps, customs, food choices, public transport, banks, the exchange of money, and much more. I honestly think this keeps my brain from atrophying. It’s a challenge that can leave me exhausted at the end of the day, but it’s worth it. I consider myself an “untourist”.
Last but not least, I write.
I write every day for several hours. I’m constantly challenged to come up with fresh ideas and to proofread and edit my own material. It’s hard work, but it keeps me on my toes.
I also try to learn at least one new skill every year.
Last year, it was a research project that took me to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where I purchased land. My research was centered around finding the future prime properties based on climate change. Turns out, I was living about six hours south of a region that I eventually learned held the most promise. Over and over again climate scientists pointed me north, above the 45th parallel to the UP.
Our big brains are amazing.
The more we know about our brains, the more we can appreciate how they work. If you have children, keep them learning new things. Champion all of their interests. Help them gain access to as many experiences as possible. If you’re an adult, invest in your brain. Shake up your routine, learn a new language, take a night class, buy a guitar and learn to play it, travel to locations where everything feels new and different, read books on new topics and from different genres, and learn to make things with your own hands.
Be a nerd. Your brain is your greatest asset.
Teresa Roberts is a retired educator, author, world traveler, and professional myth buster. You can find her books on Amazon.