Over the past several years, scientists have looked deeper into how brains age and confirmed that they continue to develop through and beyond middle age.
Many longheld views, including the one that 40 percent of brain cells are lost, have been overturned. What is stuffed into your head may not have vanished but has simply been squirreled away in the folds of your neurons.
This is good news for those of us that work in adult literacy. Many of the learners who come to literacy programs are in middle age as are many of us who work there. We are all familiar with this phenomenon:
Start boiling water for pasta, go answer the doorbell and — whoosh — all thoughts of boiling water disappear. Indeed, aging brains, even in the middle years, fall into what’s called the default mode, during which the mind wanders off and begin daydreaming.
There is more good news -- this dreamy default mode does not mean the internet has killed our attention spans. Even though "neural connections, which receive, process and transmit information, can weaken with disuse or age,":
The brain, as it traverses middle age, gets better at recognizing the central idea, the big picture. If kept in good shape, the brain can continue to build pathways that help its owner recognize patterns and, as a consequence, see significance and even solutions much faster than a young person can.
So what does this mean for adult learners and educators? Even more good news. Keep doing what you have always been doing:
Educators say that, for adults, one way to nudge neurons in the right direction is to challenge the very assumptions they have worked so hard to accumulate while young. With a brain already full of well-connected pathways, adult learners should “jiggle their synapses a bit” by confronting thoughts that are contrary to their own, says Dr. Taylor, who is 66.
Teaching new facts should not be the focus of adult education, she says. Instead, continued brain development and a richer form of learning may require that you “bump up against people and ideas” that are different. In a history class, that might mean reading multiple viewpoints, and then prying open brain networks by reflecting on how what was learned has changed your view of the world.
Whew! Thank you science. And thank you middle age for my squirrel brain.