How Old Owls Learn New Tricks
From NYU psychologist Gary Marcus, writing on the New Yorker website:
“New Year’s Eve is a time for reflection about the year that passed and a time to set goals for the future. Should we keep doing what are we doing, or should we tackle new challenges? If you’re seven, or twelve, or twenty, it’s easy to think about new ambitions: learn Spanish, learn to paint, do a flip off your skateboard. But what if you’re older?
For me, much of the past year revolved around discussions prompted by a book of mine that was published in January, called ‘Guitar Zero,’ about the science of learning and my own adventures in learning guitar at the age of forty. The basic premise was that the scientific evidence for a widespread view called the ‘critical-period effect’ was far weaker than widely supposed.
The critical-period effect is the idea that you can’t do certain things—like learn a language, or learn an instrument—unless you start early in life. It’s a discouraging thought for anyone past adolescence. But, recently, the evidence for this idea had started to unwind.
Barn owls have, for years, been a model illustration of critical periods. Young barn owls could readily adapt to a kind of virtual-reality experiment in which a prism distorted their perception of the world; older owls couldn’t. Or so the textbooks all say. But Brian Knudsen, a neuroscientist at Stanford, kept probing and found that there was, in fact, a simple way of teaching old owls new tricks: by breaking up a difficult job into small, bite-size pieces. Old owls couldn’t learn as fast as young owls, but they could come a long way if they took things incrementally, rather than all in one bite. I fancied myself as an adult owl and did the best I could to tackle the guitar bit-a-bit, keeping my expectations low and my persistence high.
While I was writing, I imagined that I was alone in my quest; the conceit was that I was going to practice for ten thousand hours, because nobody else my age would ever be willing to invest that kind of time. But in the past year, I’ve been deluged with e-mails from other adult learners. A journalist wrote to say that her seventy-six-year-old father had learned the guitar late in life, and had just told her that he was starting a band with his friends called ‘The Three Grandfathers.’” (Read more here.)
I love the idea of Marcus as an “adult owl,” taking his learning one bit at a time. And the very best part: that seventy-six-year-old man who was starting a band is my dad!