How to Keep Learning After 50 — Ways to Hack Your Brain at Any Age

Do you think you’re too old to learn new things? Think again! Here’s how to hack your brain to make learning easier at any age. By Tim Mitra.

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“You can’t teach an old dogs new tricks!” You may have heard this saying and think that it means that older you get, the harder it is to learn new skills. By extension, that means learning after 50 is difficult.

That isn’t really what the saying means. It is trying to express that we, as human beings, get used to doing things in set ways.

I asked some “old dogs” to weigh in on their own learning now that they are 50 and better. When it comes to learning, all of the folks I asked have no problem learning new things that interest them. You could even say learning keeps them young — and science backs this up. When we get older, it’s not our minds that betray us; rather, it’s our bodies and those set routines. Ask anyone you know how old they feel, and it’s likely they’ll say they are still a teenager — at least, in their mind.

Think about how fascinating it is to watch a baby start as a cooing little bundle, become a toddler and eventually grow into a little person, all within a few short years. Every day, new skills pile on top of yesterday’s skills until the child is running out the door.

How is it that we continue to pick up new skills over our lifetime? It’s a continual desire to learn, and it’s more similar to how a baby grows into a little person than you might think.

“Perseverance is the key” — my teammate, Antonio Bello.

Spoiler Alert: Your brain will change by reading this article.

Research for this article involved surveying over 25 people, more if you count interactions on social networks, to see what they had been up to. Many of the folks have been at it for over 50 years! I surveyed men and women, as well as artists, coaches and several people who write code daily — after all, this is a tech blog focused on mobile development.

They conveyed how far back this need to learn, and even the desire to tame a computer, went for them.

Over half of the participants are employed, with others working freelance or otherwise self-employed. There was an even split between those who studied computer science and liberal arts — truly at that famous intersection that Steve Jobs mentioned. Half of the respondents call themselves coders, and the majority identify as software developers.

Participants are mostly Mac and iPhone users, but Windows users are well represented. Amazingly, the majority have used Fortran and Objective-C followed by an equal amount of Pascal and Swift. It is clear that this group has been writing code for a very long time.

From Fortran to Swift

I asked each participant how they keep up, and how they keep sharp. The most common theme was that they take on new challenges. They read. They keep up with technology. They’re learning after 50 by doing puzzles, watching online video courses, and learning by doing — lots of hands-on experimentation and play.

“I think that the secret to learning anything at any age, really, is an insatiable curiosity about ‘whatever’ — could be one topic, or many topics depending on if you are a multi-tasker or not.”
– Elaine Manganello

Early scientific theories suggested that the brain only developed during early childhood, and once developed, the brain could not be changed. By that reasoning, it would be difficult to teach that old dog a new trick.

Studies of the brain In the last half of the 20th century, in contrast to the old theories, found that the brain develops throughout a person’s life. Pathways in the brain continue to form — regardless of age.

Memories form when synapses are created as electrical signals jump across the brain’s neurons. Repetition makes these synapses stronger over time. This activity continues throughout life, and the brain changes over and over. New skills, memories and capabilities grow — along with bad habits, and sometimes, addictions.

“One Word: Plastics” — The Gradulate 1967

Neuroplastcity is the name given to this science of “plastic” brain pathway construction.

Even after considerable brain trauma and physical injury, the brain is able to adapt and create fresh pathways. In the case of brain damage, it has the ability to move to different areas — a process known as cortical remapping.

This plastic nature explains why we can continue to learn and adopt new skills, including learning new languages and even picking up new musical instruments. This makes sense in the context of learning after 50 — the participants surveyed all stated that they have pursued life-long learning, an excellent example being that many moved from Fortran and Pascal to learn Swift and write iOS apps.

Dr. Josh Turknett, a neurologist, musician, and neuroplastician, explains how people can “hack” their brains. We can do this by re-examining how the brain forms new connections while we’re learning. He lays out nine steps that cover how to practice and learn to play an instrument, in his case, a banjo. The majority of people who learn to play an instrument make early progress; however, they also give up and abandon when progress seems to slow down.

How do you eat an elephant?

One bite at a time!

My favorite agile joke. [/spoiler]

Among Dr. Turknett’s interesting ideas is that you should break down what you learn into simple parts rather than attempt mastery all at once. As an analogy, he explains how babies learn to speak. They start by making vowel sounds, which are akin to “micro skills” that they pick up. They practice, and eventually move onto words and sentences.

Practice in moderation and reptition over time is key to learning after 50, or mastering skills at any age.

Changing Your Mind

Dr Lara Boyd, in her TEDxVancouver talk on neuroplasicity, laid down the three ways that the brain changes with chemical changes that support learning. The brain uses the chemicals that signal between neurons, as mentioned above, to create short-term memories. While short-term memories tend to mean great progress for people learning new skills, they also dissapate after a day or so.

Repeated practice is what allows people to start to make structural changes to their brains. With repetition, certain parts of the brain physically change and long-term memories form. It becomes easier to remember what was learned. Specialization then manifests in localized areas.

For example, Braile readers’ brain centers involved in hand and motor control are larger than that of somebody who reads with their eyes. Cab drivers’ spatial recognition areas grow large through the action of memorizing streets and addresses.

Structural changes lead to the third type of change…

And Now: Functional Programing

“The last way the brain can change is by altering is functional…” — Dr Boyd.

Functional change is where your brain uses several regions when you use a certain skill, each of which becomes excitable and easy to use repeatedly. This is sometimes called muscle memory.

Think about how once you grasp a concept it becomes simple to repeat it — like when your motor skills finally enable you to express your musical self on a new instrument, or you feel confidence in your skill with a new sport.

After a hockey practice, Wayne Gretzky would often stay on the ice with a bucket of pucks. He would shoot repeatedly at the same corner of the net. He was building structures and behaviors that he could recall when the opportunity to make that shot came up. Even if it only came up rarely in a real game, his brain would be prepared to take the shot, and if he made it, it would seem like magic to the fans. But wasn’t magic. Gretzky was hacking his brain to make functional changes.

Old Dogs Can Learn New Tricks

Of the those who participated in the survey, many expressed similar sentiments when asked how they stay relevant and learn new things. They talked about reading, watching videos, continually learning new things, and taking on new challenges.

Personally, I’m very intrigued at the thought of “hacking” my own brain. It’s fascinating to see how learning works and how changes in the brain aid in retaining long-term skills and mastering behaviors.

I can relate as a self-taught musician and a self-taught software developer. It does take time, practice and repetition to overcome what initially can be difficult skills to acquire. A great example is that after many years of jamming with a few friends, we actually became passable as a band. We did it by building on small things each week and creating those behaviors and muscle memory.

Eating An Elephant

In the world of software development, the same seems to be true. It’s hard (impossible?) to learn all of it at once, but you can learn various parts of an app, in small pieces, by going through the iOS tutorials on this site.

Break the task down into digestible pieces — as Dr. Turknet calls them, micro skills. Over time, they build up to an impressive repertoire of knowledge.

I know that like many of you, I can have a hard time grasping a concept. However, repeating a course, reading another book, looking at things from another perspective or watching an instructional video, are how I go about building an understanding of a new concept. Each time I look at it again, it becomes clearer.

Many of us old dogs continually learn to this day — hey, I learned about neuroplastcity writing this article!

One benefit of getting older is that you learn not to sweat the small stuff, like those times when you don’t grasp a concept right away. With this new knowledge, you can build the behavior you want, and now that you have an idea of how you learn, you can start to hack your own brain to learn new skills.

“Study how and what you learn best. Repeat those behaviors that are healthy for your brain and break those behaviors and habits that are not. Practice. Learning is about doing the work that your brain requires…

go out and build the brain you want.” – Dr Lara Boyd

Where to go from here?

I encourage you to look into neuroplasticity, how your own brain works, and how you learn. People tend to make great progress at first as chemical signals move around and neurons fire away, creating short-term memories. Then structural changes come with repetition and exercise. Finally, functional changes build up specialized areas of your brain.

Now you also know why you don’t retain things without practice and repetition — these lead to structural, and eventually, functional changes. They’re how you hack your brain and build those important long-term memories and neural pathways. They’re how you continue learning after 50.

Above all, work on the things that interest you — practice and persevere. When you get to be an old dog, or even if you’re an older dog than me, you’ll understand how your brain has transformed itself, and what you can do to transform it again.

You might enjoy reading our article Learning Techniques for Programmers, by Programmers.

Thanks to those who helped out on this article:
Bob, Phil Curry, Antonio Bello, Jack Cox, Colin Mackenzie, Mark Rubin, Elaine Manganello, Johanna Rothman, David Wasser, Gareth Burton, Aruna Mitra, Terry Brown, Eugene Knapik, Wendy Petcoff, Heath Freel, Charlene Winger, Irene Meitardjian, and Jean MacDonald


Neuroplastcity – Wikipedia

The 9 Ways to Practice Smarter workshop (clawhammer and fingerstyle banjo)

After watching this, your brain will not be the same | Lara Boyd | TEDxVancouver