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What can you gain by learning a new skill?

March 3, 2015

Extending your education throughout your life is valuable for an array of reasons - from making connections with new people to finding a passion that makes you excited to get out of bed every morning. 

With the prevalence of the Internet, there arent many barriers for people who want to learn something new. YouTube videos can be extremely helpful and informative, whether you want to find out how to knit a scarf or repair a crack in your drywall. Visual instruction can be more effective than written steps, depending on the skill youre working to hone. However, you can also read online materials about the best methods of achieving your goal and the important steps you should take. 

As you look ahead to upcoming months, consider these reasons to learn a new skill and tips to reach your goals.

Active versus passive learning
A study from the University of Texas at Dallas Center for Vital Longevity found that people can actually improve their cognitive function if they actively learn something new. The research focused on more than 200 participants between the ages of 60 and 90. Each person was assigned an endeavor such as taking up digital photography, learning how to quilt, engaging socially and practicing familiar cognitive tasks including crossword puzzles. They worked on their skill for 15 hours a week over a three month time span.

Use the Internet to learn your skill of choice.

These specific tasks were chosen to activate long-term memory, working memory, cognitive engagement and more. Researchers saw clear improvements in cognitive function for the adults who learned digital photography. This is because they were learning an entirely new skill set that consistently challenged them. Working with programs like Photoshop required the participants to commit steps to memory, which wasnt the case with more familiar activities. Even socializing, which has been proven on several occasions to bolster cognitive health as people age, couldnt touch the effectiveness of learning a brand new skill.

According to a study from Cornell Universitys Department of Human Development, theres a shift in how your brain operates when you learn something new versus engage in a previous hobby. Once you have a process down, your brain doesnt have to actively learn as you perform it. Imagine your mind shifting into neutral as you go through the steps involved in daily tasks such as cooking and doing laundry. When youre engaged in an activity that demands your attention, a specific neural marker is activated and results in true brain training.

"Tackle a new skill by breaking it down into small steps."

Debunking the idea of a critical period for learning
Youve probably heard that its easier to pick up certain skills when youre younger, most often in reference to learning a new language. While there are certainly some advantages to mastering activities at a young age, its not unreasonable for adults to study a second language or another subject. People often refer to these early decades of life as the "critical period of learning," claiming that adults cant take ownership of the skill in the same way past a particular age. However, a more accurate way to describe this phenomenon is with the term "sensitive periods of learning." Perhaps you cant pick up a skill with the same speed and agility as your younger self, but you arent doomed. Youve moved beyond the most sensitive periods of learning, into a phase where youre able to understand nuances that children cant process.

One of the best ways to tackle  a new skill is by breaking it down into small steps. The idea of becoming fluent in another language, for example, can be overwhelming and ultimately discouraging. Instead of looking at the big picture, work on understanding certain parts of speech and learning vocabulary words each day. While it may feel like youre moving slowly toward your goal, youre also learning more thoroughly and with minimal frustration. Its more time consuming than acquiring a second language would have been when you were young, but the cognitive benefits are more relevant now.

The truth is, you can teach an old dog new tricks - dont let anyone tell you differently.