The Importance of Learning New Skills in Later Life

At every age learning new skills represents one of the most valuable and rewarding activities we can engage in. While learning is most stereotypically associated with the image of the young student mastering the skills which will carry them through life, learning in older age may be even more beneficial to our brains and more rewarding in terms of the richness it can bring to our day-to-day. In fact, recent studies have emphasised than seniors stand the most to gain from learning new skills when it comes to factors like mental agility, memory and creativity.

To understand the impact that learning has on our brains, it’s important to understand how our brains actually work. Most people have come across the term neurons, and know that the brain functions by sending electrical signals, but few understand just how the interplay between these specialised structures defines and embodies who we are and what we’re capable of.

When our brain retrieves a memory or exercises a skill, it sends signals which are seen as familiar to the part of our brain which stores that memory or ability. “Seven down, nine letters…” our eyes report to our brains, “Measured tread of saints around St. Paul’s” “Around!” our brain supplies, “so I’m looking for a word in which St. Paul’s is at the centre… maybe?” This connection may spark further memories, perhaps as we recall the building itself in an effort to describe it other than by its name, which clearly won’t fit. What, after all, is at the centre of the cathedral itself? There’s something like a cascade of memory when we start to apply a skill like e.g. crossword solving; a figurative door is opened and suddenly the task of recalling and bringing to bear all of the interrelated skills we require seems easy, in very much the same way that recalling all of the stops on a familiar bus route in sequence is far easier than picking out a stop from the middle of the journey without first working forwards or backwards.

Thoughts, memories and skills are interconnected and this connectedness enhances our brain’s ability to retrieve information, think freely and creatively apply what we already know in novel situations. This is why mnemonics based around a room or a journey are so effective. Later in life, the connections our brain has established begin to attenuate if they’re not exercised, but making a deliberate effort to forge new connections slows down this process substantially. The real power of learning, however, manifests when we start to acquire new skills.

Without pre-existing connections, the brain must start to forge new ones. The very action of doing this actually improves the brain’s ability to do so more quickly and reliably in the future. Learning, in this way, makes us better at learning. It also makes us better at thinking, as each new skill we learn helps our brains to reconcile different areas of knowledge and forge new and stronger connections between each area, allowing for swift and easy recall in the future and greatly improving our ability to solve unfamiliar problems. Even tenuous connections can open up vast mental reserves, depending on how many connections they can lead on to.

By learning, then, we give our brains a map of themselves and drive roads through otherwise difficult-to-navigate areas, linking the cities of our thoughts via a highway system which allows everything to be where it’s needed, when we need it. Our memory of the building reveals its colour and scale… we recall its shape, and the towers and columns which draw our eyes upward to the central dome which seems almost definitive of the structure. But around that dome what saint might tread? If we already have Paul… well, mightn’t we be reminded of Peter, whose name promisingly ends with a crossword-friendly ‘ter’? By the time our brain has spun the connections, often without our even realising, it’s not uncommon to find that the most obvious piece of the puzzle is the last to slot into place. What, after all, do we measure tread with? A pedometer, of course!

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