We Learn by Experimenting at Any Age

Learning to learn at any age

Our brains are amazing systems whose inner workings we're only beginning to understand. But the fact that we don't have a flowchart that details exactly how our brain works doesn't prevent us from using it effectively — when we focus on outcomes.

    The brain is a marvel of engineering with thousands of connections and transmissions happening at any one time. Although our ancestors revered the wisdom that came with age, an open question in modern times is how we can keep our intellectual engine going well past our prime, however we define it.

    Information designer Tom Wujec says we use three areas of the brain to understand words, images, feelings, and connections to create meaning:

the more we understand how the brain creates meaning, the better we can communicate, and, I also think, the better we can think and collaborate together.


Cognitive psychologists now tell us that the brain doesn't actually see the world as it is, but instead, creates a series of mental models through a collection of “Ah-ha moments,” or moments of discovery, through various processes.


As many as 30 other parts that selectively make more sense, create more meaning through the kind of “Ah-ha” experiences.

    The three key parts he cites are the ventral stream, the dorsal stream, and the limbic system. “We make meaning by seeing, by an act of visual interrogation,” he says.

    But even when our vision may be impaired, we never outgrow the desire to learn, because we have the ability to visualize through the imagination. With curiosity as our fuel, we can keep wading into new domains, making new connections, and charting new paths.

    Certain areas of our brain are malleable, this gives us the ability to be lifelong learners. In Brain Rules John Medina provides an example of how in the mind-70s we can still be lively as children. Edmond Fischer and Edwin Krebs, who shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology (Medicine) in 1992 taught at the University of Washington where Medina did his postdoctoral work. 

    “Long after they had earned the right to be lounging on some tropical island, both had powerful, productive laboratories in full swing,” he says. Their desire to learn and engagement with exploring ideas were undiminished.

    Science shows that with age we lose synaptic connections, but the adult brain also continues to create neurons in the regions dedicated to learning. The brain changes function and structure based on our experiences. It's designed that way by evolution, so we can solve problems:

When we came down from the trees of the Savannah, we did not say to ourselves, “Good Lord, give me a book and a lecture and a board of directors so I can spend 10 years learning how to survive in this place.”

Our survival did not depend upon exposure to organized, preplanned packets of information. Our survival depended on chaotic, reactive information-gathering experiences. That's why one of our best attributes is the ability to learn through a series of increasingly self-corrected ideas.

“The red snake with the white stripe bit me yesterday, and I almost died,” is an observation we readily made. Then we went a step further: “I hypothesize that if I encounter the same snake, the same thing will happen!”

It is a scientific learning style we have exploited literally for millions of years. It is not possible to outgrow it in the whisper-short seven to eight decades we spend on the planet.

    We can continue to learn through exploration and experimenting, and many of us do.

    Culture and environmental factors may discourage or prevent much of it, but we're wired to keep learning. Babies are the model of how we learn. They don't react to the environment, they actively interact with it, testing by observation, hypothesis, experiment, and conclusion, says Medina.

    Exploration and discovery are self-reinforcing — we get curious and seek out and find new information. As we learn more and update or upgrade our knowledge through empirical observation and trial and error, we enjoy the process of mastering what we know while discovering new things.

    If we feel we stopped learning, our lifestyle may be the culprit. “Our brains were built for walking,” says John Medina at the tune of 12 miles per day. Numerous studies have demonstrated that exercise is good for the body… and for the brain. As children, our only job is to figure things out, but as we grow older, we need to make a commitment to carving out opportunities to keep exploring (and physically moving) into our days.

    Self-directed learning should include teaching and explaining topics to ourselves and others to test whether we've assimilated the information, poke wholes in our reasoning, and exercise our memory. It's helpful to abandon the illusion of perfectionism and seek out ways to shift our mindsets to the right things to focus on.

    Another interesting observation is that while children learn through multiple inputs and stimulation, trying several things at once or within a short span, as adults our approach is more linear. We tend to do things like reading books, completing tasks, and practicing a sport sequentially. But when we rotate through several of the skills we're practicing, we make our brain work a little harder, and engage creatively.

    This may not work for complex fields, and may even frustrate some of us for lack of progress. But even a small change in where we practice (or the route we take to work), choosing for example an unfamiliar place, helps us remain agile in our thinking.

    Mindset is also important. The way we think about things changes their value and importance, and their hold on us. Learning to view information from different angles is the reason why lucky people are not straight line strugglers.

    If we think we're the kind of people who can learn about things, we approach problems with an open mind, stay curious about the possibilities, and actively seek new inputs, including feedback. We can remain and/or become extreme learners throughout our lives.

Learning is a behavior, and we can turn it into a habit. For some techniques to make learning a habit, see my talk at Dare Conference.


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