Too Old For New Tricks? How to Avoid Mental Stagnation

Tricia Chadwick

Dog verses Human: Can we learn new skills as we age?

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Photo by Matt Walsh on Unsplash

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. This saying has been on my mind lately, taunting me. Can this be true? 

Is there an age where dogs stop learning? Is this true for humans too?

It feels true. Especially when faced with this horrifying statistic from Scientific American:

“Consider that 50 percent of adults over age 40 in a 2017 AARP survey self-reported that they don’t learn new information every week. That includes googling for new information.” 

Half of adults aren’t learning anything new? This statistic is highly distressing! 

The topic made me think of my rescue pup, Lola, and her inability to learn to sit. Lola is of indeterminate age and has noticeably birthed a few litters. She’s also missing most of her teeth, so she’s no spring chicken. She moved in three years ago and in that time, has been unable to learn to sit. 

Old dog, new trick. No luck. Maybe Lola’s just stubborn. 

The saying bothers me because I find myself having a harder time retaining new skills as I get older. Recipes and instruction manuals remain on standby to ‘remind’ myself of the steps involved now. Whereas in my youth, my able brain took care of the details without much fanfare. 

It’s not just a problem for me. There is scientific research to back up the theory that adulting is hard.

“Scientists have long known that our ability to think quickly and recall information, also known as fluid intelligence, peaks around age 20 and then begins a slow decline,” Anne Trafton, MIT News.

Your brain declines just at the moment you are moving out into the world on your own, the age you are expected to learn the most skills:

  • filing taxes
  • adult relationships
  • managing a household
  • insurance, retirement accounts, investing, etc.
  • remembering to make doctor and dental appointments
  • paying bills
  • hosting holidays
  • cooking

But the news is not all dire. The accessibility of the internet and online games have opened up research possibilities for cognitive scientists. 

Using the websites https://testmybrain.org and http://gameswithwords.org, neuroscientists at MIT and Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) have gathered a new mass of data to inform the study of the aging brain in ways that were not possible before. 

The researcher’s findings “suggest that the real picture is much more complex. The study, which appears in the journal Psychological Science, finds that different components of fluid intelligence peak at different ages, some as late as age 40.”

Basically, in your 20s, you are better at certain tasks, and in your 30s and 40s, you are better at other different tasks. 

For example, for some, hand-eye coordination may peak in their 20s and reduce by their 40s. In contrast, critical thinking may be at its lowest in their 20s and peak in their 40s.

While the scientists are still combing through the immense amount of data looking at real-world applications, Scientific American recommends getting a hobby as a way to keep your brain active and healthy. 

Hobbies can help our brains stay young by continually stimulating our curiosity and pushing us to learn new skills. Something we encourage our children to do but don’t always follow the advice ourselves.

The researchers discuss the favorable conditions that surround learning new skills as a child:

  • learn multiple skills simultaneously
  • they commit to learning
  • they get encouragement from teachers and caregivers 
  • when exposed to environments with low expectations and resources, we scramble to fix the situation.

 As opposed to the unfavorable circumstances in which learning typically occurs as an adult: 

  • they face a discouraging learning environment
  • low expectations and resources, such as access to teachers
  • efforts to fix these issues are minimal

With the problematic conditions adult learners are faced with, it is no wonder learning can seem impossible as we age. This may be why so many of us give up after a certain point.

Wanting to put the aging learner theory to the test once and for all, I would attempt to teach my old dog and myself a new trick. Not just for my dog’s sake, but for my benefit as well.

Better late than never? 

The next seven days we spent doubling down on teaching my dog, Lola, to sit and attempting to learn a new skill myself in the same timeframe.  

A musical instrument was my skill of choice. My husband is a music teacher, and we own a music shop, so there is no excuse for my music ignorance. I settled on the ukulele since it is supposedly straightforward to learn.

Following the advice of Scientific American researchers, the learning would take place “in an encouraging environment.” 

My dog Lola is incredibly encouraging, one of my biggest cheerleaders, so positive vibes already filled the environment. As I am a fan of hers as well, we were both set for success. 

My husband was a natural choice as my teacher because he is both patient and encouraging, so he also fits my guidelines.

I set other parameters for the experiment. Lola and I would each add one component of our new skill as necessary every other day. We would practice the day’s skill for ten minutes, three times a day. 

At the end of the seven days, I recorded our level of expertise on Lola’s ability to sit on command and my ability to play at least one recognizable song. 

The training

Something interesting happened on day one. I took Lola into my room so we could have some privacy for our training and no distractions.

Treats were ready, and Lola commanded to sit. After a few minutes of working together, she sat! On day one!

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Author's dog, Lola

She never sits when we ask her. Maybe she didn’t mind the carpet? Perhaps because she was alone with me? I stood her up and tried it again. Again she sat.  

Off to a good start!

I moved on to my ukulele and worked on the first chords to ‘Ode to Joy.’

Some stumbles, but not terrible.

The training continued much in the same way after the first day. We were pretty disciplined, although we skipped a session or two. At times I didn’t feel like practicing. Other times practicing was utterly relaxing. For Lola’s part, she seemed to enjoy the undivided attention.

After seven days, the results were in!

Perhaps Lola knew how to sit all along. There was not a hiccup in her training. As long as there was a carpet or a blanket, she was able to complete her task. 

All those years that she refused? Maybe she just needed a little extra support? Perhaps she just thought the floor was too cold.  

I, too, fared better than expected in learning a new skill. My ukulele version of ‘Ode to Joy’ is passable. At least it sounds like it’s supposed to sound. And now I play an instrument, even if it is only one song.

The win for learning speed goes to the canines, as Lola picked up her skill as soon as she moved to a carpeted room. There’s a small chance that she trained me; to stop asking her to sit on a floor and change my expectations to a carpet only sit. Not bad for an old dog!

But the human brain is no slouch either. If we employ a ‘use it or lose it’ approach to learning as we age, our minds remain agile, and we remain able to care for ourselves longer. Which is the goal, isn’t it? We love our children, but lord knows we don’t want them in charge of our daily needs.  

For now, I’ll keep reading up on the latest brain research while I add new brain-stimulating hobbies to my repertoire. Stay young and supple, brain, stay young and flexible. 

“There is a fountain of youth: it is your mind, your talents, the creativity you bring to your life and the lives of the people you love. When you learn to tap this source, you will truly have defeated age.”--Sophia Loren

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Small business owner, teacher, and mom. I write about learning, health, parenting, and animals.

Torrington, CT
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