Mature Learners

by Win Wenger, Ph.D.
Winsights No. 104 (September/October 2008)

Photograph courtesy of Steven C. Hall

Please also see these relevant articles:
Two GUARANTEED Ways to Profoundly Improve Your Intelligence,
Did You Know? A Few Specific Points , and
Breathing and Personality Traits: A Hypothesis

Other things equal: the older you are, the more readily you should be able to learn.

This is because human learning is by association. We make sense of current stimuli by relating them to previous experience. The older you are, the more experiences and the more aspects of more experiences you have ready to tie in with incoming new experiences, to recognize them in terms of previous concepts and experiences and to make sense of them.

You are not about to run out of memory capacity, either, in this lifetime or in a thousand lifetimes. You have more different possible connections available in your brain than there are atoms in the universe.

Alas, other things are not equal.

One of the regards in which they are not equal, is in the millions upon millions of brain cells you’ve allowed to languish unstimulated and unexercised, eventually to die, compared with the number of cells you’ve developed and the number of cells you’ve replaced.

Yet you know that only a tiny percentage of your physical brain is developed. So much is this the case that even when you are an octogenarian you could, with a little effort and direction, have several times more of your brain developed, online and firing, than when you were a youth!

This aspect, so counter to popular expectations of inevitable dwindling into senility, deserves at least two sidenotes:

  1. There is science behind the folklore you‘ve heard so often – to the effect that only 5-10% of the physical brain is developed. It always helps to go back to original sources and this instance is certainly a good example of this principle. Going back to original sources is what so many leaders of workshops in creativity and/or self-development failed to do, passing along instead what became mere folklore in this context. Folklore which is now being shrugged aside AS mere folklore, so that people don’t have to think about the enormous implications. A look at this 5-10% figure, and how that was arrived at, is pretty instructive. J.Z. Young (A Model of the Brain. Oxford Univ. Press, 1964) was the one who sampled brain cells in various parts of the brain, and who literally counted what proportion of the cells in his samples were developed compared with how many were not developed…
    …It IS true that only 5-10% of the cells in the human brain are developed at all. That part of his findings was correct. It is NOT true, however, that 5-10% or even 1% of the brain is developed. Consider….
    …A neuron is considered developed if it has developed an insulating myelin sheath and has synaptically linked in to other neurons. That was what Young was counting. The method made no allowance for the DEGREE of development. Neurons have been counted with upward of 60,000 synaptic connections with other neurons – but most of the developed neurons in your brain or mine have only a dozen or so such connections. Factor together the percentage of cells developed with their degree of development, and the brain clearly is not 5% or so developed – but more like one ten-thousandths of one percent developed! In other words, there is some bit of room for improvement.
  2. Besides stimulus and feedback, a primary factor driving the percentage and degree of development in the brain is the amount of circulation reaching it. A substantial portion of the people who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, when examined turn out instead to have been launched into an Alzheimer’s-like spiral dwindling of their faculties through a failure of circulation in key areas of their brain, or even more frequently an onset of anemia, conditions for which some other treatments could be more appropriate than some of the treatments which they are receiving as misdiagnosed Alzheimer’s victims. Very occasionally, reports have surfaced of restoration of limb function after paralyzing spinal chord injury, after extra arterial circulation has been routed through the site of injury for some while. In any event it stands to reason that if one improves the physical circulation of oxygen, energy, food energy and nutrition TO the brain and removal of fatigue products and toxic wastes FROM the brain, the physical condition and functioning of the brain will improve.
    …HOW does one improve circulation to the brain? Come now: even if you’ve not looked into this topic previously, you can probably brainstorm a half dozen or more ways, half of which would successfully work. However, unless you’ve read our work on this point, the most powerful of all known ways probably would not have made it into your brainstormed list of methods for improving circulation to the brain. That most powerful way is held-breath underwater swimming—please see Two GUARANTEED Ways to Profoundly Improve Your Intelligence“Did You Know? A Few Specific Points” (Winsights No. 77); and Breathing and Personality Traits: A Hypothesis (Winsights No. 61)—that combines the CO2-Carotid Effect (the more carbon di-oxide, within reason, that you have conserved in your bloodstream, the wider the Carotid arteries open to allow more circulation through to the brain) with the Mammalian Diving Response (we mammals have a reflex which powerfully sends more blood circulating to the brain and internal organs when we are under water). Also improved by this held-breath underwater swimming is one’s span of attention, allowing one to better see relationships and make sense of things.

Some people still are caught up in the old belief that brain function and intelligence are unchangeable quantities, fixed at or near birth, that one is pretty well stuck for life with the level of intelligence he was born with – or with the lack thereof. Clinicians have no trouble with recognizing trauma and processes which reduce intelligence, but cling to the antique conviction that nothing can increase it. Yet the subject of brain plasticity has become a frequent object of published scientific research. The phenomenon of brain plasticity: the tendency of the brain (which is, indeed our primary organ for adapting!) to change its circuitry, its structure, its shape, its size, even its mass, to better handle the levels and types of information it has been coping with over the previous year or so. Google for “brain plasticity,” sample the many studies which come up, and draw your own conclusions about the supposedly fixed nature of one’s intelligence.

The last few years in brain research have seen the discovery that the brain, all the time, is replacing some of its old cells with new neurons, and that the quality, speed and focus of this process is susceptible to many different kinds of influences as to stimulus and feedback, circulation, nutrition, select chemicals, and the “cognitive program” running in your necktop computer.

Educators in recent years have come to emphasize the value of feeding experience into a young child’s growing brain. They have described the condition of having a small amount of experience providing little “surface area” to which incoming new experiences can be linked and associated and made sense of – hence the desirability of enriching experience in a young child’s growing brain so that he instead has many ways to attach to and associate his ongoing new inputs. The case for this model is persuasive except for one thing:

  • The observed phenomenon of the slowing of one’s learning with age.

I believe the “sticky surface area” model of associative learning is correct, and that means that our learning SHOULD become much easier and faster as we grow older. What more than offsets this positive tendency, however, is what we allow to happen to our brains as we grow older. We compound this physiological deterioration by neglecting entire sectors of brain function and types of thinking and learning and perceiving which we had as children and which were an important part of our intellectual performance and growth. These neglected sectors DE-myelinate and eventually die out of our brains.

I wonder what wonderful ranges of perception, understanding and experience could await us if we did not allow these losses or even reversed them, and the expanded “sticky surface area” of our mature lifetime-accumulated experience continued to make sense of our ongoing world unabated…