Age and learning

Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young.”- Henry Ford.

Thank you for joining me for blog 14 in the series, highlighting decision-making and the brain. This is my public exploration of what drives decision-making and how we can use that information to make better decisions, resulting in better outcomes.

The proverbial old dog is apparently unteachable for new tricks. Why might that be the case?

Humans, unlike some other mammals, have babies that are relatively immature. Humans have large heads given the size of their bodies to house their large brains. There is a physical limitation to the size of the mother's birth canal with respect to the size of the head and so this trade off results in babies that are early in their maturity. This necessitates rapid development outside of the mother's womb. At birth the brain is 25% of the weight of the adult brain, and by 2years old that has increased to 75%! A large amount of our brain development happens very early on.

This is also true for learning and a young brain is physically more able to learn than an old brain. It has lots of space between the neurons and has chemicals that aid reconfiguration, sloshing around. We can see the relative ease of children learning versus adults by how quickly children, new to a country, pick up the local language or accent.

Thank you for the picture Hardwiring the Brain: The new science of sculpting the mind. — Pop Up Zendo


As we continue to learn during our formative years a process called myelination happens. Roughly between the ages of 10 and 20 the young brain's neurons are insulated by a fatty material which serves as insulation. In layman’s terms, what you learn before young adulthood (before 25years old give or take), is almost hard-wired. It becomes comfortable to think this way for the rest of your life and VERY difficult to shift.

Implications of myelination

Myelination means that what you learn during school time is very tough to shift.

We have seen a huge shift in the world's economic activity to be more spread out across the world. The implication of this, is that we probably have a very out of date understanding of the living conditions in many countries. For example we would probably estimate that the probability of people that wear shoes, and have access to education would be significantly lower than it really is.

It is easier to think of the world in terms of when you studied. For example, people who went to school during the Cold War might look at the world in terms of Capitalism versus Socialism, whereas someone who is studying today might see the world in terms of rising powers and think of the world in terms of China and allies versus the US and allies. This leads to a very different worldview with different remedies.

a) Business implications of hard-wiring

Technological advances are being made at increasingly rapid rates. Whereas before, under slower technological advances, an individual could be expected to keep up with the technology rise through on-the-job advances, it seems implausible to me, that someone in the technology industry (a coder for example) would be able to work full time for 40 years without some period of training.

b) Skillbaticals - implications of hard-wiring

To address the gap between on-the-job progress and the rapid changes in technology, it is likely that people will need to take a skillset gap break (skillbatical) which might last weeks or months to help them immerse themselves in the new ways of doing something.

This could be even more important if we think about people having greater longevity, it is also possible that people have a number of careers over their lifetime and a skillbatical in this context is a true career change break that will help them understand more about their new chosen field. One question I have is, will a skillbatical be more like university experience or an apprenticeship or just some time in a week to devote to learning a specific skill? If technology is advancing so rapidly, I am not sure which theatre would be the right place to develop (please write your ideas below).

Action steps

1) Unlearn: To discard something learned, especially a bad habit or false or outdated information from one's memory.

Unlearning can be achieved by understanding that the model of your world might be out of date or wrong when it starts to come up against dynamics that do not seem to fit. This is similar to intellectual humility and curiosity and starts with the basis that we are out to keep adjusting our understanding.

2) Mental Fitness: Similar to physical fitness, it's a set of methods and mental flexibility which means we keep learning and embracing rather than dismissing new technologies as a fad. I know I have been guilty of dismissing crytpocurrencies, NFTs and the like as fads (which they still might be). It is since I have been researching decision-making and the brain, that I realise some of my 'conservative' stances are really intellectual inflexibility and require rethinking.

An editorial from a newspaper aimed at older readers


The hard-wiring of some parts of our brains before the age of 25 has the benefits of making it easier for us quickly come up with an understanding of the world, but has the drawback of risking us being out of date at some point. This might not have been a problem in the past, where the world did not move on very quickly and lives were shorter but it does now. How are we to best adapt? An increasing risk to someone mid- or late career today, is irrelevance if their skills are out of date.

We can see a lot of data around us:

- young tech founders, succeeding in fields like media previously dominated by older people

- the culture war between social conservatives and the 'woke'

- the difference in worldview between those that lived through the Cold War and people who have not

- people anchored to music choices of when they were in their formative years

How is this all relevant to decision-making? Here are three take-aways I want to leave you with before we pick it up next week: 1) We physically find it more difficult to learn things after the age of 25. We need to employ the techniques discussed last week to make progress when we are older. Today's superpower - learning ( 2) We have to be careful we do not try and apply out of date information to the world in front of us. Being out of date is sometimes worse than not knowing. Unlearn before relearning. 3) Skillbaticals, unlearning and mental fitness are the words we will need to hear more about in order to be ready for the coming advances. Thank you for joining. The next blog in a week's time will cover Deep Work.