Lifelong Learning Isn't Optional - THINKERS Notebook

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Lifelong Learning Isn't Optional

As you may recall if you're a longtime reader of the THINKERS Roundup, my wife and I welcomed our second child into the world this past February.

And like most parents of two young kids, our lives have become ... hectic. Joyful as anything we've ever experienced, but with plenty of chaos to go around.

With both of us working, all while trying to navigate a move and the challenges of an ongoing pandemic, spare time has been at a premium. This has meant that hobbies have taken a back seat, as has, unfortunately, learning just for learning's sake.

Anything beyond what's essential for work has been relegated to the "I'll do that when life settles down" pile.

Well, life is starting to settle down some. (Emphasis on the some.)

We're getting more comfortable with rhythms of life with two kids, and it's allowing us to slowly work hobbies back into the mix and, most importantly, learning for learning's sake.

Case in point: my wife recently built a custom cushion for the awkwardly long bench that sits in front of the windows in our kitchen.

When she couldn't find one in the exact size to order, she took to YouTube and TikTok to learn how to do it herself. And she nailed it. It's perfect.

Outside of actually giving birth, I'm not sure I've ever seen her so satisfied with something she created.

There was something cathartic and meditative about the physical labor it took to make it, and she was also energized by learning something completely new and then putting that knowledge into action.

For my part, I decided to stop resisting the inevitable onslaught of rapidly emerging technologies and instead kickstart the process of unlearning and relearning so I have a better grasp on the world that's rapidly approaching. 

So I've been studying blockchain, cryptocurrency, social tokens, NFTs, virtual reality, even next-level battery technology. It's been illuminating, overwhelming, inspiring, and terrifying all at the same time. 

And like my wife with the bench, I've been energized by the process of learning. 

Oh sure, the specifics matter. I'm working what I learn into my work as much as I can, and part of my enthusiasm to learn has been my ability to put what I'm learning into practice.

But it's also true that the process of learning, about anything, has a bigger impact on our lives than we may realize.

In fact, whenever science creates the real "Fountain of Youth" from some  combination of diet, lifestyle choices, treatments, drugs, and technologies that haven't even been invented yet, there is a simple prescription that will probably be included:

Keep learning.

But don't take it from me. Take it from Dr. Ipsit Vahia, director of geriatric outpatient services for Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital:

“New brain cell growth can happen even late into adulthood. The process of learning and acquiring new information and experiences, like through structured classes, can stimulate that process.”

In this week's THINKERS Roundup, read the article this quote is from, plus two additional articles that make the case for ongoing learning as a path to maintaining, even regenerating, cognitive capacity as we age.

Don't just learn; use your knowledge

"You need to get out of your comfort zone and challenge your mind for optimal results. A study published in Psychological Science examined adults ages 60 to 90 were assigned to either learn a complex skill like digital photography or quilting, both of which demand more use of working and long-term memory, or do simpler mental activities like crossword puzzles. After a three-month period, the “complex skill” group showed wide-range improvement in overall memory compared with the crossword puzzle group."

Read: The Backlash Against Screen Time at School (The Atlantic)


Leverage the power of neuroplasticity

"When it comes to the power of your mind, it’s a use-it-or-lose-it situation. Unlike many of our other organs, the brain has the ability to constantly change – a phenomenon known as neuroplasticity. 

"New scientific studies show that we’re capable of neurogenesis, a process wherein we create new neurons in certain parts of our brain throughout our lifetime."

Read: How Learning Will Keep You Eternally Young (Brett Blumenthal)

You can teach an old dog new tricks?

"We are often told that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” – that the grizzled adult brain simply can’t absorb as much information as an impressionable young child’s. Many people would assume that you simply couldn’t pick up a complex skill like reading or writing, at the age of 90, after a lifetime of being illiterate.

"The latest studies from psychology and neuroscience show that these extraordinary achievements need not be the exception. Although you may face some extra difficulties at 30, 50 – or 90 – your brain still has an astonishing ability to learn and master many new skills, whatever your age. And the effort to master a new discipline may be more than repaid in maintaining and enhancing your overall cognitive health."

Read: The amazing fertility of the older mind (BBC)

Quote of the week

"Develop a passion for learning. If you do, you will never cease to grow.”  

-- Anthony J. D’Angelo