How many people do you know who’ve said (or how many times have you said yourself)…
“I wish I’d learnt a language/sport when I was younger instead of trying to start later in life”?
I’m guessing quite a few. Conventional wisdom tells us that it’s so much easier to learn things when you’re a kid, after all, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
But the fantastic news is that this isn’t strictly true. There isn’t a critical period where you have to learn things by a certain age and the brain certainly doesn’t become fixed at any point. The brain’s ability to adapt and change is known as Brain Plasticity and research from as early as the 1960s have shown that change continues throughout our lives.
So why is it harder to learn things as you get older?
It isn’t a direct result of ageing, learning is simply harder when we’re out of the practice of learning. Children are constantly learning, and so it’s a quick and easy process for them, but as we get older, we already know quite a lot, so we learn less frequently, and the learning muscles in our brain get stiff. Just like any muscle in your body, if you don’t use the learning part of your brain, it gets weaker and then learning new things feels more difficult.
The fantastic news is that there’s still hope for us
oldies adults. It is possible to literally rewire your brain, changing its physical structure and function, even as you get older. You can actually train your brain to learn more effectively. The even better news is that this has some amazing side effects as well.
What actually happens in the brain when you learn something?
When your brains wants you to do something, it fires off electrical signals that then whizz along pathways of neurons, going from one to another in a chain reaction – a bit like dominoes, but really really fast.
Just like electrical wires need insulation, so do these chains of neurons in your brain, only instead of plastic, our insulation is a fatty, white substance called Myelin. This white matter makes up nearly 50% of your brain and the stronger these myelin pathways are, the faster the electrical signals can travel.
As you’re learning, a process called myelination happens, where you strengthen the myelin insulation around the pathways of neurons in your brain. As these pathways develop, the signal becomes faster and clearer and new, clunky and uncomfortable skills become smooth and more natural.
But that’s not even the best bit…
Learning doesn’t only help you with the skill that you’ve been learning, it also has a remarkable effect on lots of our other brain functions:
Bigger Brains – Learning and using large amounts of information can actually make your brain bigger! Black cab drivers in London, who have to learn an inordinate amount of information in order to navigate the (horribly confusing web of) London streets without the aid of a satnav, have much larger hippocampuses than ‘normal’ people.
Better Memory – In order to learn new activities, you have to overcome a series of challenges, which helps you improve your memory. 
Bounce-back-ability (also known as more resilience) – These challenges also mean, you’re quite likely to make mistakes, and this can actually make you more resilient , which means you’ll be better able to cope with, and bounce back from, stressful situations .
Faster reactions – Learning a new sport that improves your fitness can also help you become more aware of your surroundings, process information faster and react more quickly 
Just generally making you a more competent person – Learning a new language in particular has a whole range of benefits, including making you better at planning, prioritizing, decision making and understanding other people’s point of view, as well as making you less likely to fall for marketing hype (who knew?!) 
Slower ageing – It’s even been found to help delay ageing , and slow the onset of dementia.
Learning a new skill can feel daunting, but…
It will absolutely get easier the more you learn. Even if you’re out of practice now, as you build those myelin pathways, what feels awkward, will soon start to feel more natural. And remember, you don’t have to learn everything straight away, you just have to start.
(And if you don’t know where to start, why not check out our goals page for some inspiration.)
Also published on Medium.