Old Dogs New Tricks

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We are all conditioned to believe that “you can't teach an old dog new tricks,” that as we get older, we can't learn new skills easily and we just won't be as sharp as we were in our callow youth.

But what if that's all it was: conditioning? What if we really do continue to learn the way we did as children well into our golden years? That's the thesis behind the work of University of California, Riverside psychology professor Rachel Wu who redefines healthy cognitive aging as a result of learning strategies and habits that are developed throughout our life. She believes these habits can either encourage or discourage cognitive development, and the choice is ours to make.

“We argue that across your lifespan, you go from ‘broad learning’ (learning many skills as an infant or child) to ‘specialized learning,’ (becoming an expert in a specific area) when you begin working, and that leads to cognitive decline initially in some unfamiliar situations, and eventually in both familiar and unfamiliar situations,” Wu said.

Wu believes that by re-imagining cognitive aging as a developmental outcome, we open ourselves to new tactics for learning. She is especially keen on what she calls “broad learning experiences,” which encompass these six factors:

  • Open-minded, input-driven learning (learning new patterns, new skills, exploring outside of one’s comfort zone).
  • Individualized scaffolding (consistent access to teachers and mentors who guide learning).
  • Growth mindset (belief that abilities are developed with effort).
  • Forgiving environment (allowed to make mistakes and even fail).
  • Serious commitment to learning (learn to master essential skills, persevere despite setbacks).
  • Learning multiple skills simultaneously.

Cognitive aging – when that dog ceases to be interested in new tricks– begins when we switch from these broad learning experiences to “specialized learning,” that point when our careers begin. The more we settle into our roles at work, the more efficient we become at our day-to-day business and the less inclined we are to wander off of our comfortable cognitive reservation.

Wu and her team define “specialized learning,” as encompassing these factors:

  • Closed-minded knowledge-driven learning (preferring familiar routines, staying within our comfort zones).
  • No scaffolding (no access to experts or teachers).
  • Unforgiving environment (high consequences for mistakes or failing, such as getting fired).
  • Fixed mindset (belief that abilities are inborn talent, as opposed to developed with effort).
  • Little commitment to learning (adults typically learn a hobby for a couple months, but then drop it due to time constraints and/or difficulty).
  • Learning one (if any) skill at a time.

“We still need to test our theory with specific scientific studies, but this theory is based on over five decades of research. What I want adults to take away from this study is that we CAN learn many new skills at any age,” Wu said. “It just takes time and dedication. We seem to make it very difficult on ourselves and other adults to learn. Perhaps this is why some aspects of cognitive aging are self-imposed.”

The work has been published in Human Development.