Learning Goes On Forever

Learning Goes On Forever

A good friend sent me this quote last week from T.H. White’s The Once and Future King:

The best thing… is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.

And, of course, I do teach that resilience – capacities to bounce back from adversity, to meet the disappointments, difficulties, and even disasters of our lives – is imminently learnable, when we know how.

And I teach that learning, any complex, multi-faceted learning, is one of the best things we can do to keep our brain flexible and functioning as we age.

Learning not only preserve neurons needed to do the new learning –learning builds what neuroscientists call “cognitive reserve” that protects the brain against brain atrophy – losing brain cells as we age.  You have more brain cells in the bank, so to speak, to buffer the loss of brain cells that comes naturally with aging. 

Exercise: Building Cognitive Reserve

You build this cognitive reserve by learning in ways that require many structures of the brain to work together. That means procedural learning.

  • Learning how to do something
    • Ride a bike, paddle a kayak, plan and plant a garden
  • Build cognitive reserve – complexity of task
    • Learn to play musical instrument, speak a foreign language, play complex games like chess; juggle. Challenge your brain by designing a curriculum, writing a play, coordinating a political campaign, navigating a new city, a new relationship, sign up for a new volunteer activity

The more complicated the learning, the better. Learning to play a musical instrument or learning to speak a foreign language can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s by 50% and delay the onset of Alzheimer’s by four years. (because you build a reserve of healthy brain cells).

Guidelines for Learning Something New

Choose something you are interested in that will keep you motivated.

Something where you can begin small and increase the level of challenge over time, so that you’re continuing to stretch and challenge your brain.

Learn with a partner or in a small group; the social engagement can be powerfully motivating, encouraging, rewarding, and make the learning more fun.