Old brains learn NEW TRICKS

2. Makin' lightning3. Prevention: The best medicine1. Never too lateRiddle of R & L3. Stroke of genius?4. Attitudes are a' changin'


Teacher and students in a U.S. Indian school from the 1950s.
Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration






Ba ba da da goo goo! After months of babbling, infants learn their mother tongue. Their brains wire themselves to meet the enormous challenges of language.
Courtesy Missouri Department of Social Services

  Can adults learn?
POSTED 31 AUG 2001
Older brains can't learn much. It's depressing, but it's been considered a fact of life. Duotone image of prim teacher in long dress. One student stands, reading, while others follow in their books. Sure, you can remember a new phone number or the location of your sailboat -- maybe even your kid's plans for the afternoon -- but forget about learning a new language without accent or teaching your that old gray matter to master a musical instrument.

Ever since neuroscientists began using that clunky moniker, they have put out this grim word: you grow older, you learn less. Your brain loses its delightful flexibility and becomes ossified. Calcified. Petrified. New connections aren't made, and dying neurons die are not replaced. As millions of adults have learned to their dismay, you can only recover a certain amount of movement after a stroke.

What me learn?
Baby, mouth open, looks at camera.But a strange fate apparently befell neuroscientists. They aged, they read their writings, and were horrified to think that it applied to them.

In this edition, we aging Whyfilers are happy to report some good news from the neurological front. Aging brains may be capable of remarkable feats -- if they are trained properly. Sure, it's easier to learn Mongolian as an infant, but even for tough learning tasks, there's newfound hope.

As we'll see, the dismal dogma of neuroscience is yielding -- grudgingly -- to a more complex -- and infinitely more encouraging -- reality.

Let's take a toughie. Could we teach adult Japanese speakers to distinguish the English R and L?



  The Why Files   There are 1 2 3 4 pages in this feature.
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Terry Devitt, editor; Pamela Jackson, project assistant; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive; Jennifer Pearson, project assistant