If we learn French, can we look as debonhair as Mr Laurie? And sound as daft?
It used to be thought that once we reached adulthood, our brain stopped developing and it was downhill all the way to the grave. Now we know differently. The brain changes – the term used is plasticity – throughout life. As with the body, it is a case of use it or lose it. The book, The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Doidge, points out that when we are adolescents and young adults, we take on new challenges and learning experiences. As we settle into our chosen lives, things calm down and we jog along being good at what we do, becoming less and less inclined to start up a completely new project. When we do something we are already good at, we do not have to concentrate in the same way as we did when we were learning things. It is this concentration that sharpens the brain, as we shall see.
A baby has no way of knowing what is important for it to learn to cope with life, and so it pays attention to absolutely everything. Its brain is switched into a perpetual learning mode, so it learns to distinguish individual sounds from the morass of surrounding noise, then language, facial expressions, good flavours and so on. After a certain age, this state of effortless learning stops and from there on we all have to concentrate to learn a new skill. A bout of serious concentration briefly turns the learning ability back on, releasing my favourite neurotransmitter, dopamine, which is the neurotransmitter of action, and acetylcholine, which helps the brain tune in and sharpens memory. Learning new stuff seriously rejuvenates the brain.
And so learning a foreign language, which requires a great deal of thinking and learning, spurs the brain into action, improving the memory overall far more effectively than just trying to learn a list of words or objects possibly can.
This also applies to learning how to listen properly again as the hearing ages, to doing eye exercises and getting back in touch with the body. For example, wearing increasingly thick, comfy shoes sends the sensors in the feet to sleep, and the appropriate maps in the brain fade, so we lose our feet. And we are well on our way to the Stagger Of The Ancient.
If we use getting older as an excuse for laziness – ‘you can’t teach a dog new tricks’ – then we can enjoy a shamble into the old people’s home, spending our days gawping at the telly or shouting at the nurses. If, on the other hand, we stumble about barefoot, fumbling our way through the Greek alphabet and being completely incomprehensible as we have a go at our new French, ‘Excuesay mwah, monsewer, oo eh le magazan de baggette?’ – and then studying a bit of Schopenhauer for a bit of light relief, we may be viewed as daft as brushes. But we will own a brain 20 – 30 years younger than that of our contemporaries. Better than watching Holby City in the dotage.