When was the last time you tried something new that was totally out of your comfort zone?
Perhaps it was flailing around the pickleball court with a friend. Or that ceramics class you took, even though you’re a self-described “non-creative.”
Whatever the new pursuit, there’s a slew of cognitive benefits to be had, say researchers. It seems that your brain loves being a beginner at something – whether it’s surfing or chess.
Here’s how to take advantage of the “beginner’s brain” to sharpen your memory.
Too often adults avoid trying new things because they worry they’ll fail, won’t be good, or simply look silly. However, being a beginner can enhance your brain and sharpen your memory.
The Japanese even have a word for it… Shoshin, or beginner’s mind.
A beginner’s mind is a mindfulness concept from Zen Buddhism.1 It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconception when studying a subject – just as a beginner would – even when studying at an advanced level.
Indeed, openness to experience is a terrific personality trait to cultivate. Research shows that people who score high in this trait tend to have a richer life experience.2
According to the science magazine Scientific American, open-minded people like to engage with the various patterns and perspectives that clamor for space in our mind. The author says new “information is like catnip for their brain.”
Too Old for New Tricks?
If you think that a beginning piano class will only leave you feeling frustrated, then think again, say the researchers. A study published in Journals of Gerontology, Series B: Psychological Sciences offers some compelling evidence to the contrary.3
The researchers wanted to uncover if learning new skills in an encouraging environment in older adulthood leads to cognitive growth, just as it does in childhood.
So, they asked a group of adults, aged 58 to 86, to concurrently take three to five new classes (similar to an undergraduate college course load of approximately 15 hours per week on average) for three months.
Their classes included Spanish, how to use an iPad, photography, drawing/painting, and music composition. Additionally, they attended one-hour sessions, which delved into learning barriers, the value of learning new skills for functional independence, and resilience in aging.
Then came the real test. The researchers measured changes in short-term memory, such as remembering a phone number for a few minutes, as well as cognitive control or switching tasks.
What did the researchers discover?
Their Brains Grew Decades Younger
The learning intervention participants boosted their cognitive abilities to levels similar to those of middle-aged adults, 30 years younger, after just 1.5 months! Meanwhile, the control group, who skipped class, but were active community members, maintained their cognitive abilities at levels like those of older adults in general.
The scientists say they are keen on investigating how long the cognitive benefits of the learning intervention group will last.
The study authors shared this take-home message…
“Not only can older adults learn multiple new skills at the same time in the right environment and with the right beliefs, but doing so may improve their cognitive functioning considerably.”4
But what is the secret sauce behind this learning intervention? Authors say it brought older adults out of their comfort zones and made them feel fearless about new challenges.
“At the start of the intervention, many older adults thought they could barely walk a mental mile, but they completed a triathlon,” the authors conclude.
Harnessing the Beginners’ Mindset
Author Tom Vanderbilt’s interest in lifelong learning was sparked as a father shuttling his daughter to a myriad of new hobbies from piano to Tae Kwon Do.
He decided to follow suit and even wrote a book about his experience, entitled Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning.5
Mr. Vanderbilt spent a year learning how to sing, draw, juggle, and surf. Did he fully master all these skills? Nope. But that’s beside the point, he says.
“As adults, we instantly put pressure on ourselves with goals,” the author states. “We feel like we don’t have the luxury to engage in learning for learning’s sake.”
Mr. Vanderbilt says he wanted to revel in the pleasure of the process and the value of having a sense of not knowing. He recalls that it’s important to experiment with skills you have absolutely no background in. Mr. Vanderbilt says, for him, drawing was especially unfamiliar.
“The learning of the thing itself was often different from what I imagined,” he explains.
I’m not saying you should devote a year of your life to surfing, drawing, and singing lessons like Mr. Vanderbilt. And perhaps a 15-hour-a-week course load may be excessive for your busy lifestyle.
However, we could all do well to cultivate a beginners’ mindset, where everything we learn is new. This mindset can promote the brain’s ability to rewire itself. What’s more, jumping into a new pursuit can connect you to new and interesting people, which also benefits your mental health.
And finally, I believe opening our minds to new ways of thinking is a win in today’s rapidly changing world.
- https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/openness-to-experience-the-gates-of-the-mind/#:~:text=The personality trait that best,and other fruits of culture
- https:// tomvanderbilt .com/