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Live and learn?

Posted in Aging, Health, and Life & Love

never-stop-learningWe spent yesterday in McGregor checking out the renovation progress. It was a brilliant feeling – knowing that the cottage is ours and the changes are all going to be in place in time for the summer. The lei water dam – which is in the process of becoming a swimming pool, is deeper than we anticipated. And looks so much bigger and luxe.

The builders were there chasing electricity, dropping in plumbing, insulating new rooms and stripping sealant from concrete. All fascinating and all things I had to make decisions about. Which means I have been trying to get my head around the technicalities of floor preparation, salt versus chlorine for the pool, paint densities for waterproofing and how to apportion space appropriately in a tiny bathroom. All of which has required new knowledge aka some learning.

I’ve found over the past few years, that getting new information to stick in my brain isn’t always easy. camparigirl was telling me that the older students in her new Italian language school job have a harder time absorbing info than the younger ones do. And I’ve seen how quickly the nans get their heads around new technology – whilst my parents struggle to get to grips with the workings of an iPad.

I wondered why this is – surely our experience in learning should make it easier – rather than harder, to learn? Why does our capacity to pick up new skills like a new language or playing a musical instrument get worse as we get older? Why can I never remember where I put my keys and glasses?

According to a study just published in the Journal of Neuroscience – it’s all about the loss. Most particularly the loss of the tiny spiky projections on our nerves that make connections with other nerves structures in brain cells – aka “spines”.

The authors, at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, looked at two groups of rhesus monkeys: young adults and elderly adults. They tested the primates’ ability to quickly learn where food was hidden; and found the young monkeys were better at the task than the old ones. Especially when they had to remember where the food was hidden for a longer time.

When the scientists examined nerve cells in the monkeys’ prefrontal cortexes (an important centre for learning and memory in the brain): they found that the numbers of spines were greatly reduced in the older brains. Especially ‘thin spines’, which are actively involved in learning new things and change rapidly. ‘Fat spines’, more involved in retaining old memories: weren’t affected.

What goes for rhesus monkeys very probably mimics what happens during normal human aging. According to the authors: “The bad news may be that we can’t make an old dog learn new tricks,” they conclude. “The good news, however, is that we can age gracefully by emphasizing learning in our youth.”

So there we have it: we can remember things we learned or experienced twenty years ago – but learning how to conjugate a French verb – not so much.

To be an outstanding learnerSo, maybe when we do learn, we need to learn like we did when we were younger. And thanks to my sister in law Jackie – I know how.  She found these rules on ‘how to be an outstanding learner’ in my niece Emily’s school homework book.

And, given how well it seems to be working for Loulou (who is smart, funny, interesting and who can hold a pacey conversation with anyone) – I thought I would pass them along.

(Udemy image found here, Outstanding Learner image courtesy of Loulou’s logbook)


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  1. Reckon the brain is just another muscle. Exercising it in the golden years (imparare italiano of wel nederlands) is important to maintain mental fitness.

    September 26, 2013
  2. Jen

    Funny — if rhesus monkeys appear once more in my feed this week, I’m going to take it as a sign. This is the second study using rhesus monkeys i’ve read about in so many days (the other was an old one studying executives and stress). I am totally and completely starting to forget. Actually less forgetting and more mistake making. Misspelling, mistyping, having trouble recalling the right words. I chalk this up to age, but also to the fact that I am in a foreign country, still learning a new language and trying not to confuse it all in my brain. I am also overworked at the office and at home. We have SO much in our brains — much more than rhesus monkeys. Do they account for work/life balance when they do these studies? Social media? Technology overuse?

    September 25, 2013

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