About seven years ago, I started learning how to paint as a hobby. I was pretty terrible. Everything looked flat, I did not have the right proportions, and my colors were totally off. My friends and colleagues suggested that I stop wasting my time on something I wasn’t good at. “Focus on your day job,” they said.
I kept at it—practicing, taking classes, finding the right teachers who could mentor and challenge me. Over five years, painting started to become intuitive, and lo and behold, I am now considered “good.” Today, the same friends say I was born with this talent. “You’re in the wrong profession,” one said recently.
The same thing happened when I started piano and singing lessons a couple of years ago. Comments shifted from, “Stop wasting your time and focus on what you know,” to "You've got a musical gene."
These comments originate from long-held beliefs that growth is largely not possible for adults. Even when there is evidence of learning, it can be attributed to inborn talent, like the comments that I received. Most scientific studies on adulthood focus on cognitive maintenance or decline, rather than growth, suggesting that even scientists may think that development is severely limited in adulthood. The prevailing mentality is represented by adages, such as “use it or lose it,” or worse, “old dogs can’t learn new tricks.”
A few recent studies, such as ones by Arne May and Denise Park, do suggest that learning new skills, such as juggling or photography, for even three months may enhance brain functioning in adults.
I would take these studies one step further to argue that an important cause of cognitive aging is the very fact that adults learn a lot fewer new skills compared to infants and children. If we can figure out how to learn well as adults—in other words, cognitive growth—then perhaps we can develop better approaches to preventing, or at least mitigating, cognitive aging.
For the past 14 years, I’ve conducted research on learning during infancy. I learned how to paint, sing, and play the piano in part to connect ideas about infant learning with a better understanding of adult learning, one of the topics I now research.
Other scientists and I have found that there are six aspects in the environment and within infants and children that help these young learners learn so efficiently.
- Open-minded, input-driven learning (learning new patterns, new skills, exploring outside of one's comfort zone).
- Individualized scaffolding (consistent access to teachers and mentors who guide learning).
- Growth mindset (belief that abilities are developed with effort).
- Forgiving environment (allowed to make mistakes and even fail).
- Serious commitment to learning (learn to master essential skills rather than hobbies, persevere despite setbacks).
- Learning multiple skills simultaneously (such as developing language, motor, visual and social skills).
By contrast, adults are often reluctant to go outside of their comfort zones. We don’t have consistent access to teachers. We fear looking stupid for making mistakes; we fear failure could cost us our jobs. We abandon the six aspects because they make us inefficient adults—we typically get paid for what we know. Perhaps a reason we see cognitive decline is that we do not engage in learning new skills for many years.
I believe that both scientists and the general public underestimate the capacity of cognitive growth in adults, especially older adults. In the coming years, I will test these ideas using scientific methods to better understand how cognitive development occurs in adulthood. In the meantime, let’s change the conversations about aging from the pessimistic views of maintenance and decline to optimistic views of growth.
To better communicate with my in-laws, I'm starting to learn German, by once again employing the learning strategies of an infant. I'm currently at the "listening and babbling" phase. Sure, some may laugh at an adult babbling, but I hope one day to have a fluent conversation in German, and to inspire many other adults to learn like a baby.