Thursday, May 4, 2017

You're not too old to learn

One reason people develop closed minds is because they shift from "broad learning" to "specialized learning." A recent study suggests that this is the cause for the long-held belief that as people age, they can't learn new skills.

It's also the reason why people who have Mesomania literally can't unsee Mesoamerica in the Book of Mormon.

But it doesn't have to be that way.

The study is summarized here:

"We argue that across your lifespan, you go from 'broad learning' (learning many skills as an infant or child) to 'specialized learning,' (becoming an expert in a specific area) when you begin working, and that leads to  initially in some unfamiliar situations, and eventually in both familiar and unfamiliar situations," Wu said.In the paper, Wu argues that if we reimagine cognitive aging as a developmental outcome, it opens the door for new tactics that could dramatically improve the  and quality of life for aging adults. In particular, if adults embrace the same "broad learning experiences" (characterized by six factors below) that promote children's growth and development, they may see an increase in their cognitive health, and not the natural decline that we all expect.
Wu and her collaborators define "broad learning," as encompassing these six factors:
1. Open-minded, input-driven learning (learning new patterns, new skills, exploring outside of one's comfort zone).
2. Individualized scaffolding (consistent access to teachers and mentors who guide learning).
3. Growth mindset (belief that abilities are developed with effort).
4. Forgiving environment (allowed to make mistakes and even fail).
5. Serious commitment to learning (learn to master essential skills, persevere despite setbacks).
6. Learning multiple skills simultaneously.

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The inverse of "broad learning" is what we see in those who suffer from Mesomania. The article explains:

The researchers explain that intellectual engagement (via the six factors) declines from infancy to aging adulthood as we move from "broad learning" to "specialization." They argue that, during infancy and childhood, engaging in these six factors actually increases basic cognitive abilities (e.g., working memory, inhibition, attention), and they predict that the same is the case in adulthood.
Wu and the researchers define "specialized learning," as encompassing these factors:
1. Closed-minded knowledge-driven learning (preferring familiar routines, staying within our comfort zones).
2. No scaffolding (no access to experts or teachers).
3. Unforgiving environment (high consequences for mistakes or failing, such as getting fired).
4. Fixed mindset (belief that abilities are inborn talent, as opposed to developed with effort).
5. Little commitment to learning (adults typically learn a hobby for a couple months, but then drop it due to time constraints and/or difficulty).
6. Learning one (if any) skill at a time.
"When you look across the lifespan from infancy, it seems likely that the decline of broad learning has a causal role in cognitive aging. But, if adults were to engage in broad learning via the six factors that we provide (similar to those from early childhood experiences), aging adults could expand cognitive functioning beyond currently known limits," Wu said.
Wu makes the case that we naturally tend to shift from "broad learning," to "specialized learning," when we begin our careers, and at that point, cognitive aging begins. As we settle into our work roles, we become more efficient in our day-to-day expectations and activities, and rarely stray from that. Though there are some benefits to it, such as having more efficient and accurate responses in appropriate situations, there are also downfalls, such as holding wrong assumptions or difficultly overriding these assumptions.

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This study suggests there is a way out of Mesomania, just as there is a way for older people to continue learning new skills.

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