teaching old dogs new tricks

Everyone has heard the saying that you can’t teach old dogs new tricks. But I am no longer convinced that saying has anything to do with what you can and can’t teach people – young or old. For many years I believed I couldn’t learn a new language once I passed teenage years because the number of fibers that run through the corpus callosum that connects the two hemispheres of the brain stop increasing by adulthood. At least that is what I recall, correctly or not, of the argument put forth at some point in the past. My own experience with studying foreign languages seemed to bear this out in that I have always been more comfortable speaking and listening to German, the language I began studying at 14, than any of the other languages I have tried to master since. But my first German teacher took a radical approach to teaching us German which may have had as much to do with my higher level of comfort than my age offered: she didn’t give us any books for the first six weeks. Instead, she spoke German, we repeated what she said until we had memorized the dialogs, and then we recited the dialogs in pairs with our classmates after which we practiced using the sentence patterns of the dialogs to make up our own sentences using new vocabulary. There was no distracting written version to complicate the tasks. And we didn’t pick up the habit of trying to speak German words using English pronunciation rules because we already knew, for example, that “ie” in words was pronounced “E” and “ei” was pronounced “I” and words that were spelled with “sp” at the beginning, such as “spielen,” were pronounced as if they were spelled “shp,” “SHPEE-len.”

But I’ve heard about more recent studies that indicate the size of many sections of the brain continue to grow even long into adulthood. For instance, studies of London taxi drivers who must master massive amounts of navigational information, known as “The Knowledge,” in order to pass the exam to obtain a taxi license, show that one section of their brains, the posterior hippocampus, is larger on average than the brain of non-taxi drivers. In addition, the size of that section of the brain in London taxi drivers is proportionally larger depending on the length of time they have been driving a taxi.

There have been any number of studies that show the progress that is possible to overcome the effects of damage to the brain, so it is surprising that the notion of the nervous system being essentially fixed throughout adulthood was still prevalent until the 1970s. Many of those studies indicate that when there is damage to the left hemisphere of the brain, areas of the right hemisphere can be developed to take over the function.

And now there is Lumosity, the website that presents game-like activities designed to improve brain function, based on the science of neuroplasticity. Experiments that have led to new beliefs replacing the belief that the brain of an adult is essentially fully formed and unchangeable involve what some would consider cruelty to animals. For example, one study involved sewing shut one eye of kittens, which revealed that instead of the portion of the brain that would have processed information being inactive, that section remapped itself to assist with processing visual information from the other eye.

I started playing Lumosity’s games more than a year ago and try to complete the five games that make up a training session at least five days each week. No more than 15 minutes is required to play the games and that’s important to me because I get caught up in games – both on-line games on my iPad and puzzles, such as Sudoko, jigsaw puzzles, and crossword puzzles. The games and results are rated against five scales: speed, memory, attention, flexibility, and problem solving. At the end of each session, the day’s scores for the five scales, plus an overall Brain Performance Index (BPI), is presented. The option to compare my scores today with my scores over time as well as to the average scores of others in my age range provide plenty of metrics to provide motivation and to identify areas of relative strength and weakness. I haven’t figured out just which games line up with which scale, but I know from my scores that I am much better at those testing – and training – my flexibility than my speed. My BPI has improved from 473 the first time I played the games to 981 today. I recognize much of the improvement resulted from my familiarity with the games, but just when I think I have mastered a game, it stops being presented as a suggested game, switching tasks to keep me flexible.

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