Monday, April 26, 2010

Old Dog... New Brain

Have you ever heard the phrase, "You can't teach an old dog new tricks", or one of it its variants? You've probably read or heard that as babies, we learn at an amazing rate and that our rate of learning slows as we grow. Maybe you've heard that children can learn new languages much faster and better than adults. Essentially, there seems to be a preponderance of evidence that capacity to learn is inversely proportional to age, i.e., as we get older we are less able to learn.

The evidence certainly seems to be there. For example, young children who learn new languages speak without accent (as though the language were their primary language), while teens and adults who learn a new language tend to speak it with their native accent.

From time to time, I talk to adults who want to learn to play the piano, but stop themselves because essentially their time has past; learning piano (or anything significant for that matter), is something that we do as children.

When was the last time you learned something really different or acquired a novel skill?

Cause and Effect
One of the fallacies we covered in Fallacy (For the Sake of Argument II) is the Concurrence Fallacy, essentially the coincidence of two events implies a causal relationship between the events, in this case, as I get older, I seem to learn fewer new things, therefore aging must reduce my capacity to learn. Another fallacy we covered was Argumentum ad Populum (Appeal to the People), e.g., everyone knows that you can't teach an old dog new tricks.

Every argument I've ever heard for diminishing capacity to learn as we grow older seems to be fraught with fallacy. Yet, so many people insist that it gets harder and harder and takes longer and longer for them to learn as they get older.

I believe them. However, I don't think that it has anything to do with age.

The Problem with Words
This morning I was thinking about the discussions many of us have been sharing regarding the nature of judgments. One of the things that seems to be a common misconception is that some phrases and words are assessments and others are judgments.

For most of us, calling someone 'fat' or 'ugly' would be perceived as insulting or cruel. So, using these words as examples of a judgments would result in most of us nodding in agreement. Similarly, calling someone 'tall' or something 'useful' would be viewed by many as assessments. In a gathering of people, you could easily come up with a list of words that everyone agreed have negative connotations. From there, it's easy to jump to the conclusion that those words are inherently judgmental. Everyone agrees, therefor it must be the case.

However, there's nothing inherent to a word that makes it either a judgment or an assessment. Words are neutral. The difference is how we respond emotionally to the word. If I respond happily or see it as representing something good and desirable, the word implies a positive judgment. If I respond unhappily or see it as representing a bad thing, the word implies a negative judgment. If I respond neutrally, then the word implies an assessment.

What matters is not the word, but the response to the word. However, paying attention to and assessing responses requires us to pay attention and think. It's much less work to simply have a list of judgment words and assessment words.

So, we opt for the microwavable meal version of assessing the direction and magnitude of an emotional response, we listen to the words, see where they fall on our list, and voila, we know whether we have a judgment or an assessment.

Back to Babies and Learning
Thinking about this, I came up with a new theory of learning (at least new for me). Consider a new born baby. No words. No logical constructs or frameworks. No preconceptions and judgments. Just a raw computing engine connected to unfiltered sensory input.

As the baby processes all this sensory input, patterns emerge. Light becomes shapes and forms. Forms become faces and hands. Sound becomes aural shapes and forms. Aural forms become words and phrases. The process of transforming patterns into structures is powerful; the child doesn't have to think so much to process what he's seeing or hearing. This frees him to apply his thought-engine to other tasks. This is how we move from sounds to words, from words to phrases, from phrases to sentences, and so on.

Each time we learn a word, an abstraction that represents any number of distinct stimuli, we begin to substitute the word for thinking. Rather than processing gazillions of visual stimuli each time, we just say "car."

Abstractions, categories and stereotypes are all great. They provide efficiency and free our minds to take on more and more and more. The problem occurs when we stop the taking on more part.

In the absence of acquiring new skills, of continually learning and growing, our brains become sedentary and rigid. We start to do the mental equivalents of riding the elevator rather than taking the stairs, of driving to work rather than riding a bike, of getting a massage rather than getting a workout.

If you talk with a group of children about what's new or what they've learned in the past week, you'll be immersed in a deluge of information; if you ask adults, you'd likely here, "not much, what about you?"

It's no wonder that we end up not being able to learn new things as we get older or that senility seems to be on the increase. It just has nothing to do with age.

Workout Time
Assuming that you consider thinking a reasonable skill to possess (and granted, there's much evidence that one can get through life just fine without it), then the question is one of what to do. Off the top of my head, I would suggest several activities that might help:
  1. Empty the fridge of the mental equivalents of junk food. Create a list of all your truths, stereotypes and words you use though you're not really sure what they mean. Explore them and decide whether or not the efficiency gained is worth the cost.
  2. Toss the telly. Don't just not watch it. Throw it out. Television has got to be the biggest causal factor regarding sedentary minds.
  3. Read some non-fiction.
  4. If you are going to read fiction, try something like Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse or Illusions by Richard Back or Zen and the Art of Motor Cycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig.
  5. Discuss something other than the kids or how your day went or the latest gossip or the house or your job or the weather. Hmm... what's that leave?
I'd love to hear your suggestions or things that you've done to get your brain out of the recliner and onto the treadmill.

Have a thoughtful Monday!

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