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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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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!
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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!