“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” It’s a common cliché because as people grow older, it seems like it becomes harder for them to learn. But when does our capacity to learn start declining? At what age is it harder to learn?
It initially becomes harder to learn around the age of 12 because the chemicals in your brain change during puberty. Around the age of 25, your brain patterns solidify, and they will become harder to change. You can still learn new things when you’re older, but it might take some extra effort. Learning is key to keeping your brain flexible.
Continue reading to learn about how the brain changes in your life and how you can continue learning, even if it’s more difficult than it used to be.
How Do We Learn?
The brain is a highly complex part of the body. Tasks seem simple, but the way our brain completes those tasks is actually much more complex. Learning new things is just remembering how to do something, right?
Not exactly. Your brain must push out old information to learn new information. Your brain creates connections that allow you to remember things, but older connections have to be broken to make room for new connections.
Your brain has an NMDA receptor that switches between learning and memory that uses subunits called NR2A and NR2B. NR2B is responsible for making new connections or learning. NR2A is responsible for weakening connections or memory.
These two subunits are responsible for why it becomes harder to learn as you get older.
Why Does It Become Harder to Learn?
Your brain goes through major changes as you grow up. There are two major events in your brain that affect your ability to learn between the ages of 12 and 25. Each person is different, of course, so it might not be those exact two ages for each person. But 12 and 25 are the average ages these changes take place.
When You’re 12
Children have higher amounts of NR2B. Remember that this is the subunit in charge of learning. This is why their brains seem to be sponges that are capable of picking up any piece of information. Their brain is highly capable of making new connections, which is necessary since they’re exploring the world around them. A child must learn to speak, walk, use manners, do chores, and many other things.
NR2A levels are quite low in children. This is the subunit that weakens connections or forgets. Young minds have a lot to learn, so they don’t throw out a lot of information because it could be useful to them in other areas.
Puberty changes how the young mind works. While the entire body is changing, the brain is making more NR2A subunits and getting rid of NR2B subunits. So, around the age of 12, the brain seeks to hang on to information it has already obtained and leaves less room for new connections.
When You’re 25
A second major change takes place in your brain around the age of 25. As you grow up, your brain develops pathways that are used to complete tasks. By the time you’re 25, your brain has many pathways logged, and it is prone to choosing the easiest route.
The easiest route is what makes you do the same thing over and over. It’s what makes it difficult to learn. Why challenge yourself by completing a task differently when you can choose to take the easiest pathway?
The NR2A subunits are responsible for these pathways your brain always wants to use. Around the age of 25, your brain solidifies, and it’s no longer as flexible as it once was. There are fewer NR2B subunits, and they aren’t used as often, and it’s harder to let go of habits because your brain wants to use them since they’re easier.
Your Brain Is Lazy
If it sounds like your brain is lazy by choosing the easiest pathway, that’s because it sort of is. The well-worn pathways are the most efficient because you don’t have to think about it. It’s a habit that essentially allows your brain to be put in cruise control mode.
Since your brain becomes lazy, you have to work harder as you get older to learn new information, habits, and ideas. Remember, as an adult, you have more NR2A than you do NR2B. So, you hang on to old ideas tightly, and you have little room for new ones.
But it’s not impossible to learn new things. In fact, learning new things will expand the number of new connections you can make and will make your brain more flexible.
How Can I Make Learning Easier?
There are several ways you can make learning easier for yourself. As an adult, it will always require a bit more work to learn, but it can absolutely be accomplished.
Understand Your Brain
You need to know how your brain works so you can learn in ways that will make it seem easier. Your brain holds onto old ideas thanks to NR2A, but it’s also always adapting to your environment.
For example, people placed in solitary confinement tend to have better cognitive abilities because they had time to think. Taxi drivers have better spatial representation capacities in their brains than bus drivers do because taxi drivers don’t take the same route all the time.
If you do the same thing every day, your brain will become accustomed to it. This might make learning something new easier or harder for you, depending on your situation.
Seek Out Challenges
Once you’ve reached a certain age or a certain level at your job, you might decide that you’re “finished” learning. Maybe you know everything you need to know about your job, or you don’t like to read and challenge yourself anymore.
Your brain naturally chooses the path of least resistance. Once you begin learning new things, you force your brain to “exercise,” and it will eventually become a little easier to learn. If you have curiosity, don’t stifle it. It’s possible for our curiosity to go away at some point.
Stay Focused and Consistent
When you’re learning something new, it’s important to stay focused and continue learning. Don’t give up just because it’s difficult. Your brain might feel fatigued, and you might actually feel physically tired after a session of focused learning. This isn’t a reason to stop.
If you’re used to a certain lifestyle that involves little learning, you’ll feel resistance toward learning because your brain isn’t flexible.
If you want to learn something new, whether it’s a hobby, a language, or a sport, you need to practice consistently and stay fully focused when doing so. Fatigue means your brain is working hard to create new pathways. It’s putting that NR2B to work, which doesn’t happen as often as you get older.
Your brain will become flexible as you continue to learn. As you gain skill in something new, your brain is creating new connections and pathways. You’re breaking old habits, and you might be able to throw away old connections, which is what NR2A prevents from happening.
Your brain first begins to make it harder to learn around age 12, and then again around age 25. The older you get, the more difficult it will be to learn new things. Don’t let it stop you, however. Learning new things is how you encourage the brain to become flexible. Like a muscle, you have to continue using your brain to keep it agile.
- Embrace Possibility: Why Old People Have a Hard Time Learning New Things
- EurekAlert!: Eliminating useless information important to learning, making new memories
- Fast Company: What It Takes To Change Your Brain’s Patterns After Age 25
- NCBI: The Best Time to Acquire New Skills: Age-related Differences in Implicit Sequence Learning across Human Life Span
- Neuroplasticity: You can teach an old brain new tricks
- Psychology Today: If Learning Is a Natural Skill, Why Is It So Hard?