The adult brain is far more malleable that we thought

David Robson writes: Some 36-year-olds choose to collect vintage wine, vinyl records or sports memorabilia. For Richard Simcott, it is languages. His itch to learn has led him to study more than 30 foreign tongues – and he’s not ready to give up.

During our conversation in a London restaurant, he reels off sentences in Spanish, Turkish and Icelandic as easily as I can name the pizza and pasta on our menu. He has learned Dutch on the streets of Rotterdam, Czech in Prague and Polish during a house share with some architects. At home, he talks to his wife in fluent Macedonian.

What’s remarkable about Simcott isn’t just the number and diversity of languages he has mastered. It’s his age. Long before grey hairs appear and waistlines expand, the mind’s cogs are meant to seize up, making it difficult to pick up any new skill, be it a language, the flute, or archery. Even if Simcott had primed his mind for new languages while at school, he should have faced a steep decline in his abilities as the years went by – yet he still devours unfamiliar grammars and strange vocabularies to a high level. “My linguistic landscape is always changing,” he says. “If you’re school-aged, or middle-aged – I don’t think there’s a big difference.”

A decade ago, few neuroscientists would have agreed that adults can rival the learning talents of children. But we needn’t be so defeatist. The mature brain, it turns out, is more supple than anyone thought. “The idea that there’s a critical period for learning in childhood is overrated,” says Gary Marcus, a psychologist at New York University. What’s more, we now understand the best techniques to accelerate knowledge and skill acquisition in adults, so can perhaps unveil a few tricks of the trade of super-learners like Simcott. Whatever you want to learn, it’s never too late to charge those grey cells.

The idea that the mind fossilises as it ages is culturally entrenched. The phrase “an old dog will learn no tricks” is recorded in an 18th century book of proverbs and is probably hundreds of years older.

When researchers finally began to investigate the adult brain’s malleability in the 1960s, their results appeared to agree with the saying. Most insights came indirectly from studies of perception, which suggested that an individual’s visual abilities were capped at a young age. For example, restricting young animals’ vision for a few weeks after birth means they will never manage to see normally. The same is true for people born with cataracts or a lazy eye – repair too late, and the brain fails to use the eye properly for life. “For a very long time, it seemed that those constraints were set in stone after that critical period,” says Daphne Bavelier at the University of Rochester, New York.

These are extreme circumstances, of course, but the evidence suggested that the same neural fossilisation would stifle other kinds of learning. Many of the studies looked at language development – particularly in families of immigrants. While the children picked up new tongues with ease, their parents were still stuttering broken sentences. But if there is a critical period for foreign language learning, everyone should be affected equally; Simcott’s ability to master a host of languages should be as impossible as a dog playing the piano. [Continue reading…]

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