Keeping a busy and active mind is essential to healthy aging. But I’ve noticed—and I’m sure you have, too—that the motivation to learn new information wanes with age.
It can be easy to say, “Hey, I’m 70, and I know everything I need to.” In fact, I think it’s pretty darn tough to teach anything new to anybody over the age of 40!
But, is this because we’re not interested in learning new things, or are we just scared we won’t grasp new concepts?
Learning can be really difficult, especially when it’s something brand new. And, this even more so if you haven’t really had to learn anything new for a long time.
Mental Stimulation Improves Cognitive Function
New information and skills can go a long way in learning how to learn and maintaining cognitive abilities with age. Just like how physical activity keeps your body healthy, mental activity can keep your brain young.
However, to get the biggest benefit, you may have to take on mental challenges that force you to think hard or learn new material.
In 2013, a study published by the Association for Psychological Science showed an effective way to improve cognitive functioning, like memory and thinking. According to the research, it’s important to do challenging and unfamiliar activities, not simple ones like crossword puzzles or other games. So, providing your brain with mental stimulation seems to be the key in learning how to learn.
But what if you get easily frustrated because you have a hard time learning or staying focused on something new? Does it stop you from learning photography or quilting, or taking an online course on ancient civilizations?
Well, the good news is that you can change your thinking and learn more effectively. You can learn how to learn.
Doctors from Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan and the University of California created an online course called Learning How to Learn available on Coursera. It teaches people how to overcome learning difficulties using neuroscience and common sense.
So far, the course has been taken by 1.8 million people in 200 countries. And, its main focus is on teaching anyone how to maximize their ability to learn new information.
Learning How to Learn in 4 Easy Steps
According to one of the creators, Dr. Oakley, there are four main techniques anyone can use to learn how to learn.
1. Focus Then Don’t
Follow up every bout of concentration with a period of taking your mind off the material. Doing this allows what you’ve just focused on to consolidate and settle in your brain. In this “diffuse” period, your brain will make unconscious informational connections.
2. Take a Break
Dr. Oakley recommends doing 25-minute periods of focused work followed by a break. She says to set a timer while you’re concentrating. And when it goes off, step away and take a brief break—almost like a reward.
Take a walk, listen to a song, or drink a cup of tea and allow the information you’ve learned to consolidate. The timer also helps with overcoming procrastination.
When you learn something new, it becomes “chunked” in your brain, creating neural patterns that can be called upon when needed. But to bring them up in the most efficient way possible, you need to practice.
Dr. Oakley uses backing up a car to illustrate how practice affects chunking. When you first learn to back up a car, she says your memory is using almost all of its power to focus on the reversing. But, the more you do this, the less you need to think about the process. It becomes almost natural.
So, the more practice you have, the more chunks are built, and you remember more.
4. Know Yourself
Lastly, it is important for you to understand that people have different learning styles. You can be a visual, physical, or audible learner. And, some people absorb information quickly while others take longer.
So, knowing how you learn is essential when it comes to processing and retaining new information.
Association for Psychological Science, “Learning new skills keeps an aging mind sharp,” Science Daily, October 21, 2017; https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/10/131021095028.htm, last accessed August 15, 2017.
Schwartz, J., “Learning to Learn: You, Too, Can Rewire Your Brain,” The New York Times, August 4, 2017; https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/04/education/edlife/learning-how-to-learn-barbara-oakley.html?rref=collection%2Fsectioncollection%2Fwell&action=click&contentCollection=well®ion=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=1&pgtype=sectionfront&_r=0, last accessed August 15, 2017.