It is a proven fact that young people’s brains are more elastic and pliable and able to learn things much faster than old people. Old people’s brains get brittle and set. They can’t maneuver between subjects and activities as fast as young people.
This is why it’s OK to be a prodigy but once you hit 20, you’re just like everyone else. Mozart and Mendelsohn were prodigies. So is Yo-Yo Ma. Mozart and Mendelsohn died before they were 40. Yo-Yo Ma is still performing. Is Ma still considered a prodigy? Does he do things that other cellists his own age cannot do? He is an amazing artist. Starting early with obvious gifts does not imply that these artists are so far and above normal people at a later age.
What mental processes slow down? Association, memory-type skills? Quickness in calculations? Problem-Solving?
I have started teaching beginners as young as age 3 and as old as age 78 on piano. Do you know what differences I found? Older beginners relate the material they’re learning to everything else they’ve picked up in their lives. So do the youngest beginners. Which group do you think has more experiences in life? Young beginners are more likely to experiment and learn more by doing than by telling. Older beginners are less likely to experiment because they trust the teacher implicitly.
You are familiar with the old adage, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks?” Based on my years of teaching (over 50!) it depends. The flaw happens in the assumptions made at the beginning of the learning process.
Little kids don’t know a lot about the world around them. They see in extraordinary color, but cannot reproduce what they see. They hear with incredible attention to detail, but they cannot express what they hear without basic verbal tools. They can manipulate sounds and get their thoughts across to those around them, but they cannot write or express themselves with any accuracy. So since they lack communications skills, the assumption is that they know nothing. The error comes in when they are characterized as having an empty slate for a brain that anyone can write on. PATENTLY UNTRUE! Nobody starts from 0. They are immersed in their culture, their physical discovery, and their mental picture of relationships between people, creatures, nature, and cause and effect. Children are learning from within the womb. Older students have been immersed in their world for decades. Does that mean that their slates are all scribbled on and no one can add anything of import to them? Who fills these slates? Teachers? Parents? Peers? No. Each person fills his own slate.
In my humble opinion, people slow down the learning process themselves because they have “arrived” as adults and don’t have to learn anything new. HA! Enter Covid. You’re asking yourself, “What does that have to do with anything?” Now the old folks are learning to use technology to communicate, to order necessities online, to communicate on platforms that allow multiple users to communicate simultaneously, and to even do their jobs at home virtually commuting to their workplaces. Old dogs? New tricks? Et Voila!
As we age we continue to learn because it keeps our minds active and curious. The day that curiosity stops, we get old really fast.
Think of it this way. Why do cement trucks have revolving drums? If it’s just to keep the cement moving, you wouldn’t have to move the whole drum, you’d just stir. What happens if it stops? Well, cement is made up of several components. They consist of calcium silicates or lime rock compounds mixed with sand, and aluminum ferrate which has traces of aluminum and iron oxide. They mix with water to make a kind of glue. Then, when mixed with rock or sand or gravel, it sets up as concrete. What if your brain worked the same way? As long as the neurons are firing in many areas of the brain, you are more malleable in the ways that you learn and the subjects that catch your imagination. When the cement truck stops spinning, the heavier elements move to the bottom where they are more difficult to put back into action. The cement separates back into its component parts and hardens. This is why it is poured while liquid into a form and allowed to separate and harden in a predetermined shape.
If we adhere to the empty slate theory of how the mind works, then when we stop learning, exploring, and imagining, all the component parts (memory, processes, individual facts) are separated from the glue and abilities degenerate.
Imagine you wanted to learn a new language. If you were the ripe old age of 40, most people would deter you saying it’s so much easier when you’re younger. What if you went deaf? Would that mean you couldn’t learn ASL because you’re too old? What if you moved to China? You wouldn’t learn the language because you’re too old? I contend that as you age, you start learning differently. You apply what you have gained from experience throughout your life rather than starting from 0. You have the benefit of comparison and finding likenesses as well as differences that help you remember.
Because as adults we don’t compartmentalize all our knowledge but use it to enhance our understanding and are able to integrate new material with old, we get a better picture of the whole ball of wax.
So picking up a new language at 50 is no more difficult than you make it, and learning how to design web pages and content for a new business isn’t daunting, and if you want to learn how to skateboard, why not?
Old dogs learn new tricks as a matter of course. There’s nothing stopping you.