How Old Owls Learn New Tricks

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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!

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3 Responses to “How Old Owls Learn New Tricks”

  1. Dawn says:

    Not sure if it’s an “advanced” age, but I finally learned to knit at 38. I’ve crocheted since I was 6, and managed to get good at it, but could never coordinate 2 sticks at once. Finally, one day, it “clicked”.

    I’m a Continental knitter. I hold the yarn like I do for crocheting, as opposed to the widespread English throw method, but hey, it works.

  2. I encountered Marcus’s book just as I was in the first year of my own getting into music for real at the same age as him. Unlike him, I did not start from zero, but I did start from fairly little. And hearing of him and others take up new things as adults has really inspired me, because there is a lot I always put off doing in the past and I’m excited to have started in the past year!

  3. Kathy Sierra says:

    I started riding horses at age 48, and started competing in my 50′s, mainly to help prove the points in the Ericsson’s research (including deliberate practice, etc.). My first trainers were constantly mentioning the fact that “kids can pick this up naturally, but adults will always struggle”, convinced as they were that riding has some critical threshold.

    At a show, I saw a competitor in her 70′s, who had started riding in her 60′s. I immediately signed up to work with HER trainer. Last fall I out-scored a young woman who is a likely candidate for the world championships this year, but I did this with zero “natural talent”, and using nothing but careful deliberate practice. More importantly — and related to some of your earlier posts — it wasn’t just me in the equation; I also had to convince my totally average *horse* that he, too, was a “champion.” And while I was busy figuring out how to apply Self-Determination Theory to my horse (thanks to Dan Pink’s TED talk for that), I suddenly realized that both of us were making progress step by step.

    I will say that I have had to work excruciatingly hard on things that age CAN affect: long habits of poor posture. It took several years of consistent work to fix posture problems that had been nearly etched in stone for me. But while I had more to undo, this in no way meant it was impossible.

    If I can prove to just one trainer or to just one other older beginner that science offers a path to learning and improving and even — if we choose — becoming really good — no matter how pervasive the common misconceptions about old dogs/new tricks can be.

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