A six-year-old child and his 70-year-old granny are playing a memory game. The child turns over matching pairs again and again, while the granny is straining to remember where in the column of cards she last saw a matching pattern.
This is a familiar situation to most, but where does it stem from?
The fundamental mechanisms of learning are the same for all, and learning new skills causes permanent changes in the brain, regardless of age.
“The structure and functions of the nervous system, however, change at different stages of life. The adult brain is fully grown, but in children and adolescents the brain is still in development,” says Nina Sajaniemi, a docent in early childhood education at the University of Helsinki.
The neurobiological maturation of the brain extends to the age of 20 to 25. Our environment has a significant impact on brain maturation, since the brain receives from our surroundings a constant stream of new information to be processed. A child’s brain is extremely efficient in receiving these morsels of information. Children are better at absorbing new information than adults, and therefore beat adults in memory games, for example.
Learning is always good for you
Learning is a natural state for the brain. Foundations for life-long learning are laid during early childhood. Babies are inquisitive learners who test the feel of a toy with their mouth and the sound it makes when dropped on the floor. All future learning is based on the synaptic connections formed during these experiments.
“Curiosity is inherent to humans. Children learn a lot of new things, but in linking new information with prior learning, the elderly outdo children,” says Minna Huotilainen, a professor of education.
Learning generates physical changes in the brain. Neurons find new connections, but other connections are eliminated. The amount of myelin, an extremely essential fat found in the central and peripheral nervous systems, increases. Myelin and the pruning of the neural network speed up brain activity.
The brain requires interaction
Some say that studying and learning slow down the aging of the brain. In practice, thickening of the cerebral cortex and the strengthening of white matter pathways can be perceived as deceleration of aging.
“Studying and taking up new hobbies are good for you, even when you get older,” says Huotilainen.
“You can start learning a new language and reward yourself with a trip to a country where that language is spoken. It is advisable to do something that interests you, not something done merely out of necessity, since the social aspect of hobbies and the enjoyment gained are also important to brain health.”
In addition to studying, the brain can be kept healthy by eating well. According to research, diets consisting of a wide selection of vegetables, wholegrains and fish are best for the brain.
Sajaniemi and Huotilainen also recommend sufficient amounts of sleep, exercise and social interaction for brain upkeep. Without external stimuli and interaction with other people, your brain will wither away. This has happened to children living in captivity, for example.
“Brain activity, interaction and learning cannot be separated from each other,” says Nina Sajaniemi.