I’m Too Old to Learn Technology . . .Right? ~ Charlotte Raby

 

Photo by Robina Weermeijer on Unsplash 

So, you've been trying to learn a new technology-related skill. Learning seems more difficult and is taking longer than you think it should, and this has led you to be fearful and tech averse. Does this sound familiar? Well, if you're 55+ years old, it's probably all too familiar. Is it you? Are you too old to learn new things. The good news is yes, it IS you (mostly) and no, you're never too old to learn! The aging brain decreases our motivation to learn and changes the learning process (Neuroscience, 2020; Graybiel, 2014)Society’s expectations of older adults also add to difficulties of engaging with and embracing new technologies. But if we can understand what’s going on with our brains, we can learn better, improve our brain function, and enjoy using technology for pleasure and to support our medical, psychological, and social needs.

Our brains are composed of gray and white matter. Gray matter consists of mostly cell bodies and some axons (conduits for relaying information) and is mostly surface brain tissue. Gray matter is where younger brains learn. White matter is mostly axons, and it’s located in the deep tissue of the brain. White matter axons coordinate communication between different parts of the brain’s gray areas.  The ganglia, which is gray matter and found in the deep tissue, controls motivation. 

Inside the ganglia is a group of cells called striomes, which form a circuit in the brain that controls and maintains motivation, emotions, addiction and habit formation, and voluntary movement (Yotsumoto, et al, 2014). Motivation is driven by an emotional, cost-benefit analysis we make when faced with something new or risky, and this analysis is critical to our species’ survival.  This circuit is connected to a dopamine center, and since we want to feel good (via dopamine), we will follow the dictates of our striomes and assign subjective values to risks, which affect our choices. As we age, striome activity decreases, which in turn decreases our engagement in and motivation to learn new things (Graybiel, et al, 2014). Since we know gray matter becomes less elastic in older brains –  meaning it can’t be activated the way it used to when it was younger – it makes sense that this circuit would also become less functional, decreasing our discrimination and learning. However, this gray matter circuit can be manipulated to increase or decrease motivation to learn, via chemicals or biofeedback. 

If we can change our motivation to learn, but gray matter is less plastic in older brains, how can older brains still learn? It turns out that when gray matter becomes less plastic, white matter takes over. In the 2014 Yotsumoto study which compared learning processes in younger and older brains (65+), it was discovered that a reorganization of white matter occurred in older brains, which enhanced the efficiency in which signals were transmitted through the axons, thereby increasing visual/brain processes.  White matter in younger brains operates in an isotropic manner, meaning there is no restriction on the direction of signal flow (it is a communication manager, after all). But in older brains, white matter becomes more anisotropic when learning, meaning the diffusion of signals becomes more restricted and hence focused, in direction. This way in which older brains learn is significantly different than how younger brains learn. However, researchers found that performance improvement between the younger and older brains was virtually equal.

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Another more recent study looked at whether environment affects how older people learn. Researchers asked adults aged 56-86 to take five classes simultaneously to learn a variety of new subjects and skills. Participants were learning in an encouraging and supportive environment – something typically only younger people experience – and were able to increase their cognitive functioning to levels of people thirty years younger, and in only 1.5 months (Wu, Strickland-Hughes, 2019). These results indicate that learning new things improves the older brain and gives better results than merely working to maintain one’s current brain function levels. At the end of the study, subjects reported feeling surprised at their own results and fearless in the face of new challenges.

So, what does all this new information mean, and how can we use it to our advantage? Adding this new knowledge to earlier scientific discoveries helps us better understand ourselves. For instance, human brains cannot multitask, but process by switching back and forth between tasks, using white matter (Graves, 2020). Since we know the older brain uses white matter for learning, we can therefore understand that older adults will learn more easily if they remove distractions and stimuli that require typical white matter processing, and dedicate their white matter to anisotropic, focused learning.


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In addition, the brain uses more energy than any other organ in the body. Eating and sleeping well, exercising regularly – which makes more energy-creating mitochondria in our bodies – and taking breaks every ninety minutes to allow our energy to recharge, maintains and conserves energy (Graves, 2020). And do the terms “gratitude” and “purpose” sound familiar? Negative emotions use more brain energy, so developing the ability to feel positive emotions and find meaning in our tasks increases focus and strengthens our brains.

Which brings me – finally! – to the issue of older adults struggling to learn new technologies. There are multiple factors which lead to seniors feeling at odds with how to bring technology into their lives. While 73% of older adults use the internet and more than 50% spend half their leisure time using electronic devices, they still report struggling to learn new technologies (Jefferson, 2019). Something I have experienced myself is the fact that technology is designed “top-down,” meaning people who understand technology are designing for those who are complete novices, with the presumption of how the end-user will learn and use that technology. It’s difficult to find information that starts at ground zero for older learners who have no experience. And this pains me, right in my white matter!


Photo by Adam Niescioruk on Unaplash
Learning and using a new technology requires synthesizing multiple ideas and skills at once, often from a variety of sources. For instance, building a website requires finding and subscribing to a web server, finding and claiming a unique domain name, and then subscribing to and learning how to use a website-building application (or coding it yourself). And of course, understanding terminology and how these elements work together is integral to success. Until designers begin designing from the bottom up, with input from seniors regarding their physical and experiential barriers to technology, we’ll have to use what we know and what we’ve got.  

That’s right – white matter! We are now armed with knowledge about motivation, brain energy, and how best to learn. We understand why we’re fearful and frustrated, but we no longer have to let any of that get in our way – older adults can learn new things just as well as younger adults.


Photo by Philippe Leone on Unsplash
First – No Fear! 
Don’t allow negative beliefs developed through society’s agism hold you back. Believe you can do this. Activate your motivation circuit via purpose and meaning, set and prioritize goals. Do not multitask – remove all distractions and work on one thing at a time, to protect that new white matter process. Give yourself a supportive and encouraging environment by forming or joining a like-minded accountability or study group. And finally, give yourself time, don’t give up.

You’ve got this!

References

Graves, G. (2020) Optimize your energy. Health.com, November.

Graybiel et al. (2020).  Striosomes mediate value-based learning vulnerable in age and a Huntington’s disease model. Cell, October 28.

Jefferson, R.S. (2019)  More seniors are embracing technology. But can they use it? UCSD researchers suggest asking them. Forbes, June 28.   https://www.forbes.com/sites/robinseatonjefferson/2019/06/28/more-seniors-are-embracing- technology-but-can-they-use-it-ucsd-researchers-suggest-asking-them/?sh=582e2da32323

Neuroscience News. (2020). Why motivation to learn declines with age. Neuroscience News. October 28. https://neurosciencenews.com/motivation-learning-aging-17224/ 

Wu, R., Strickland-Hughes, C. (2019) Think you’re too old to learn new tricks? Scientific American, Observations, July 17. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/think-youre-too-old-to-learn-new-tricks/

Yotsumoto, Y., Chang, LH., Ni, R. et al. What matter in the older brain is more plastic than in the youngebrain. Nat Commun 5, 5504 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1038/ncomms6504

Charlotte has always been creative and interested in how things work and interact in the world. While she has a BSE in engineering, a M.Ed. in special education, she worked in a variety of positions, including Motorola engineer, special-ed high school teacher, homeschooling-mom, flute player, formal wear alterations business owner, and writer.  She also cross-stitches, paints, cooks, still sews for her family, and has recently learned how to use Adobe Illustrator to create repeating designs for fabrics and other items.  Join her over at www.charlotteraby.com to stay connected and see what she’s up to! 

8 comments:

  1. Great subject to delve into. Always fascinated with what the grey matters vs the white matter does in our brains. I studied this many years ago when I was diagnosed with MS. Thanks for being our guest today.

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  2. You're welcome! It was fun to research and write about. It is fascinating, and I think there's so much more we don't know yet, about our brains and bodies. :)

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  3. I love hearing that there's hope for older brains to continue learning new information since I suppose I'm in that category of having an older brain. LOL And yes, technology is a struggle for many of us, on the other hand, when I do figure out something new in technology I feel good about it. Thanks for the informative post.

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    1. You're welcome! Yes, it does seem there are multiple things acting against us in this regard, but I also feel GREAT when I learn a new technology! I used to always ask my daughters and husband to help me do things, and now, I rarely have to ask, and when I do, they most often don't know!

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  4. Oh, Charlotte, I love "Believe you can do this" -- next time I'm struggling with the new WordPress, I'm gonna tell myself that very firmly!

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    1. LOL! YES! Sometimes, it's the only thing that gets me through - I KNOW I can do this! belief is a powerful thing.

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  5. Great info and great pep talk Charlotte!!! : )

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