Is Your Brain Stuck?

How To Make All Things New

The other day I was talking to a friend of mine about language. He is a fellow teacher, and we were discussing the best way that children learn. There are those that believe there is a small window of opportunity, about three or four years, where a kid’s brain is especially compliant and flexible, and that they can learn pretty much anything. After that, teaching them something new is much more difficult and complex. Some say that during this time period, much of a child’s outlook on life will be determined, their beliefs, ideas, beliefs about their own capabilities and other core mental components will be pretty much set.

Then there are those that believe that it only appears that way, because during this time period of a kid’s life, they aren’t really expected to do anything except soak up information. They are supposed to hold down a job, or pass any university entrance exams, or even do any household chores. It is because kids are given a free pass that they can devote their whole lives to learning different things and ideas. This particular school of thought holds that if you took any adult, at any age, and put them in the same environment, and they would produce the same amount of learning.

This of course would require they have all their needs taken care of, and don’t need to produce anything whatsoever, and any failure is met by complete acceptance and encouragement by those around them. Like just being a kid.

It’s easy to imagine this being the case. Imagine going off to some foreign language camp. You are subjected to the new language twenty-four hours a day. You don’t have to worry about doing anything, not even learning the language in a “school” type environment. You are in a place where there are others around you, going about their business, learning the language, and every time you use it correctly you are given smiles and praise. And if you mess up, there are no negative repercussions. And all you have to do is eat, sleep and play, and follow other people around and try and pick up the language they are speaking.

If you’ve seen the movie “The Last Samurai,” that’s kind of what happened to the character played by Tom Cruise. For the first few months, he wasn’t expected to do anything except wander around and try to fit in as best he could, so naturally he picked up the language fairly quickly.

Those that argue against this idea will say that the brain changes somehow, and that after a certain age, usually around seven or so, the brain is pretty much frozen. You try to teach an adult a foreign language, and they’ll be studying for years and years and still not get it right.

I’m sure you could make equal arguments for each case. The problem with things like this is that you can’t really do proper scientific studies, as that would be out of the question. You could scarcely get any funding for an experiment that would take several adults and put them into a situation where they would be like Tom Cruise’s character for a year or so. And you couldn’t take a kid out of his or her natural upbringing and subject them to different ideas at the whim of an experimenter.

Human studies like this can only be done in retrospect, with naturally occurring events that weren’t planned by any scientist. Which of course makes it easy to “prove” any theory simply by looking for the right data to support it.

My friend tends to believe in the biological view, that the brain physically changes at a certain age, making it much harder to learn new things, as we get older. I tend to think that it is more of an environmental issue, at least more so that his idea gives credit to.

I’ve known people that have come to the United States as teenagers, not speaking a word of English, and successfully learned accent free English in a couple of years, simply by immersing themselves in language learning above all else. I’ve also known people that have been in the United States for ten years or more and can barely speak English.

The Jesuits used to say that if you gave them a child, they would make him a solider of Christ for life by the time he was seven. This was clearly a belief in the biological model of learning, that after a certain age, the brain is closed off to new ideas and ways to look at the world.

But the past is filled with individuals who, through late in life conversions, changed the course of history through simply taking on new ideas. Saul, Mohammad, and Malcolm X are just three individuals who come to mind who experienced late in life conversions, or inspirations that changed the course of history. Of course, one could argue that each of these received “divine” help, and that the brains of normal individuals, which are not exposed to these divine interventions, don’t qualify for late in life learning.

Various social experiments show time and time again that as humans age, choices and habits become less and less flexible, but what is causing what? Does aging cause inflexibility, or does inflexibility cause aging?

Personally, I’m off the believe that it’s never too late to learn something new, and that you really can teach an old dog new tricks. So long as you put yourself in an environment that is conducive to learning, the sky’s the limit to the things you can put into your brain.

Of course this gets harder and harder as we get older, and pick up more and more responsibilities and restraints on our time. But that only means you need to get more creative with how you look at the same things every day.

One trick is to spend a few minutes every day looking at normal, every day objects, and specifically giving them names that don’t fit. For example, look at a book and call it a frog, and then look at your shoe, and call it a taxi. If you do this a few minutes every day, with ten or twenty objects, you’ll be building lots of new neural pathways in your that can give the same old boring stuff you see every day a new perspective. Many people report that after doing this mind experiment for a couple weeks, the world begins to look a lot more brighter and more interesting, just like when you were a kid and you got a new toy.

And if you can look at the same stuff every day the same way a kid looks at a new toy, you’re doing pretty good.