It’s said that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but you can teach an old(er) barn owl new skills by breaking them up into manageable, bite-sized steps. Seriously, a neuroscientist tried and succeeded. What does this mean for dogs? Or more importantly, what, if anything, does this means for humans? Well, it turns out that human adults—the most senior ones among us included—are also capable of learning new skills, whether it’s learning how to play a musical instrument or becoming fluent in a new language. The adult brain may get rusty with age in some ways, but it doesn’t lose the ability to pick up new tricks. There’s promise for us all!
Here’s one example: Gary Marcus wanted to learn a new skill. More specifically, he wanted to learn how to play the guitar. At the time, he was 40 years old. He wasn’t so sure how he would fair, but he was undaunted. Marcus was skeptical about his ability to pick up the guitar because of a widely held theory known as the “critical-period effect.” He describes it in his article “Happy New Year Pick Up a Skill” as “the idea that you can’t do certain things—like learn a language, or learn an instrument—unless you start early in life. It’s a discouraging thought for anyone past adolescence.” But again, Marcus was undaunted. So he set out to learn the guitar, and write about the adventure. Fortunately, he also documented new research that shows it’s not too late for people to learn a new skill—not even if they’d been written off as a “lost cause”, or as someone beyond the point of benefiting from new learnings, therapy, or treatment. So let’s blow that thinking out the water, shall we?
Going beyond his own experience with the guitar, Marcus cites very compelling findings from a study by vision researchers at the University of California, Berkeley. The study results showed that people with amblyopia or “lazy eye,” regardless of age, could improve their vision by—wait for it—playing video games.
In an article on the study, Sarah Yang wrote: “The study found that participants experienced marked improvement in visual acuity and 3-D depth perception after spending just 40 hours playing off-the-shelf video games.” Before getting to why this is a big deal, you should know this: Yang reports that amblyopia “is the most frequent cause of permanent visual impairment in childhood.” This is why doctors believe it’s critical to treat children with the condition as soon as possible, since most experts had believed that the window for treatment closes shut by the age of eight. As for adults who never received treatment in childhood, they were—up until recently—out of luck, and considered a lost cause.
Yang quotes the study lead author, Roger Li, as saying: “This study is the first to show that video game play is useful for improving blurred vision in adults with amblyopia…I was very surprised by this finding; I didn’t expect to see this type of improvement.” More research has been lined up—for both children and adults—but one thing is very clear: the myth that adults with amblyopia could never improve their vision has been shattered into bits. While vision experts and researchers have a lot more to learn, there’s no doubt that the outcome of the study will likely make a very big difference in the lives of a lot of adults with the condition—but they will also have to put in the time and effort to work on improving their vision. Maybe their newly developed skills on an X-Box will impress the neighborhood kids?
And effort, for old(er) dogs, is the key. In his article “The Science Behind How We Learn New Skills,” Thorin Klosowski explains that as we pick up a new skill, it gets easier over time because your brain has to do less and less work. He quotes a neuroscientist from Cornell University as saying: “training [or, practice, practice, practice] resulted in decreased activity in brain regions involved in effortful control and attention that closely overlap with the frontoparietal control and dorsal attention networks.” OK, whoa. The point, writes Klosowski, is that “over time, a skill becomes automatic and you don't need to think about what you're doing. This is because your brain is actually strengthening itself over time as you learn that skill.” How is it strengthening itself exactly? It’s engaging in a process called “long-term potentiation,” “in which repeatedly stimulating two neurons at the same time fortifies the link between them,” he writes. The more neuron links, the closer we are getting to mastering a skill.
Klososwki has some other tips for how to get busy making your synapses fortify, and you can check them out here. So what does this all mean? It means there are no more excuses. Whether you are 22 or 72, if you’ve got the will, then it turns out there’s very much a way. If you want to master the top principles of finance, learn a new language, or become a sizzling salsa dancer—you can: plain and simple. Will it be easy? Not at all. But science is helping us to figure out that our brains are in fact receptive to learning at any age. It’s not just the young pups that can learn new tricks—it’s the old(er) “dogs”, too. Guitar Hero 5, anyone?