Grapple with new information to keep brain growing

struggling with new information

We spend a lot of time grappling with new information and skills just so we can keep up in the modern world. Every time we buy a new gadget or product, we have to learn how it works. Computers and mobile phones constantly change. Information technology demands we keep up or give up, but that’s not all that changes.

Last week I conquered rapid antigen tests, although I felt quite nervous. What if I got it wrong? What if I couldn’t do it? But two new great-granddaughters and my need to see them and their mothers meant I’ve become very blase about RATs.

From cradle to grave, human brains learn and grow. (See my blog on life-long learning.) The best results come from those experiences which caused us to battle with new information and find a place for it in the framework of knowledge that already exists in our brains.

Life stages

Eric Erikson’s eight life stages make interesting reading. He states that at each stage, an individual has developmental tasks which must be completed as the person grows to maturity. At every stage, people must learn, practise and grow new skills.

These tasks seem to come easily to most babies and little children. They quickly grow from tiny helpless beings to individuals who walk and talk and have opinions.

Being old is no excuse for giving up learning. At all ages, we need to make new connections so that the grey matter in our brains becomes more dense and the white connective matter becomes stronger. The process in which our brains become more maleable, is called neuroplasticity. (I’ve written about neuroplasticity in another context here.)

Struggling to learn new information is good

According to Professor Jo Boaler, mistakes are good for our learning. She says,

…if we are not struggling we are not learning. Not only is struggle good for our brains, but people who know about the value of struggle improve their learning potential.’

She adds that knowledge is less important than a mindset of discovery and curiosity. She tells her students who tell her something is ‘hard’,

‘That is fantastic. That feeling of ‘hard’ is the feeling of your brain developing, strengthening and growing’.

A personal learning story

I know from personal experience how struggle to learn can create all sorts of amazing results, thanks to a remarkable teacher, Kevin Byrne.

My parents thought girls didn’t need an education (mid 1950s). I left school at 15, learned to type, then trained as a nurse. A decade later, I enrolled to complete a university entrance qualifications – two Leaving level subjects and a general aptitude test. I had three pre-schoolers and a disengaged husband who worked shift-work.

I managed well until it came to the poetry section in the Literature unit. I’d learned to love English poetry because the nun who taught me for three years was passionate about the subject. However, Australian poetry was not to her liking, so we had none of that.

The poet set for the year I did my exam was the Australian poet, Judith Wright, who was not only a poet but an environmentalist and campaigner for Aboriginal rights.

new information

My battered sixty-year-old copy of Judith Wright’s Selected Poems and one poem showing hard work and scribble as I came to terms with this wonderful poet.

I wrestled and struggled with her work. It didn’t make sense to a mind fed Keats and Yeats and John Donne. My tutor, Kevin Byrne, received several very cross letters from me, about how hard it was, and how I could never come to terms with this poetry. The ignorance! The arrogance!

I thought Kevin’s response unfeeling because he urged me to keep trying and thinking about the poetry. When I finally gave in, stopped being angry and tried curiosity instead, I discovered the grace and beauty of the poetry I’d resisted.

I knew you’d come round to liking her work,’ said the always gracious Kevin. ‘Your struggle to understand intrigued me, but I knew you’d get there in the end.’

The sudden realisation that came after perhaps a month of struggle felt like a huge reward for trying to make sense of new information.

Brain plasticity did not become well understood until the end of the 20th century and I certainly had no idea about the process. But I’ve been grateful ever since for the lesson of a tutor who encouraged me to work through the hard part of learning when I would happily have given up.

Prevention of Alztheimers disease

The adage, ‘Use it or lose it!’ applies to our bodies and our brains. We know we need to continue to learn in order to look after our brains. We’ve all been told that practising a new language or a musical instrument can help to protect us from Alztheimers disease.

From middle age, regular exercise, a healthy diet and enough good quality sleep are also important. Health authorities tell us that what’s good for our hearts also helps our brains.

Health professionals also suggest ‘brain exercises’. Wordle, crossword puzzles, jigsaws and card games, for example, keep our minds active and us connected to the world. So does socialising with family and friends. We’re urged to join groups and do new things.

Benefits of learning new information and skills

Learning not only helps our brains to grow stronger. Below is a list of other benefits.

  • Being bored becomes a thing of the past as we stretch ourselves to learn. New worlds open in front of our eyes.
  • The more we learn or practise a new skill, the more involved we become and the more we want to continue.
  • Our socialisation skills improve as we develop new interests and intensify ther old.
  • Learning in groups helps us to contribute and feel connected.
  • It also introduces new people into our lives.
  • The more things we learn and the wider our interests, the more topics of conversation we acquire.
  • When we develop new skills, we can contribute more to our families and wider social circle.

What new information are you learning?

I’d love you to share what you are learning in the comments. It would be good if we could start a discussion around this important topics.

Copyright, Maureen Helen 2022

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13 Comments

  1. Another wonderful blog Maureen. Yes, learning is an important step never to be halted. I love learning new things from my children – new computer skills the most prominent at moment. Possibly keep my brain most active at this phase in my life is through puzzles, jigsaws and recently have fallen in crazy love with Mr, Wordle. Fires me up every morning. Do admit I continue to learn so much from you dear Friend. Thank you for another wonderful blog.

    1. Thank you for your lovely comment, Elizabeth. I’m glad you like my blogs. I sometimes have you in mind when I’m writing them because you are my most important writing critic in the good sense of the word. I think our kids, and more importantly for me, my grand children, teach us so much. But I also like striking out on my own and learning independently of them. I also do puzzles, jigsaws, etc. But I find I waste a lot of time if I’m not careful.

  2. Thought provoking as always – thank you. I am currently listening to a book called, The Expectation Effect: How your Mindset can Transform your Life by science journalist David Robson. I can’t explain it better than these review on Booktopia:
    ‘A fascinating, optimistic and empowering book. David Robson uses science and stories to show the extent to which we are shaped by our beliefs, and how the predictive power of our brains influences pain, diet, sleep, exercise and intelligence’ – DR MONTY LYMAN, author of THE REMARKABLE LIFE OF THE SKIN

    ‘Authoritative, measured, practical and encouraging, it will change your attitude to life’s challenges’ – DR CHRISTIAN JARRETT, author of BE WHO YOU WANT

    ‘An intriguing account of the role of expectation (and perception in general) in a wide panorama of experience. Beautifully written, science-based, and a gripping read. I loved it!’ – DR MITHU STORONI, author of STRESS-PROOF

    ‘Packed with science and stories about the remarkable body-mind connection’ – KERRY DAYNES, author of THE DARK SIDE OF THE MIND

    1. That sounds like an amazing book, Sherene. I think it all links in to the work I’m doing on Curable and with the things I’m learning about neuroplasticity and the mind body connection. Thank you for your comment and the reviews. I will get hold of a copy of it as soon as I can.

  3. I’m with you Maureen – use it or lose it. My brain has been doing the opposite lately it has had to learn to rest, but now, without overdoing it I’m gradually introducing more work for it.

    1. I’m glad you are beginning to recover, Sue. I can’t imagine how frustrating it must have been for you to need to ‘rest your brain’. Did you use meditation or other techniques? Curious.

      1. No, I just spent less time at the computer, less time reading the blogs of others and not writing. I now realise just how much time and effort my brain puts in by constantly thinking about all aspects of blogging, planning and writing. Temporarily giving up the pleasure of this hasn’t been easy.

        Adding extra physical activities to the mix also takes a toll. The four day Jubilee celebrations were lovely, but this involved extra shopping trips and cooking and baking for our outdoor family party. At the time, because of a spell of good health, I felt well and handled it in my stride, but now I’m paying the price and I’m back to headaches and fatigue, so this week I’m taking it easy.

        1. That is seriously horrible, Sue. On one side of the equation is the pleasure you enjoy from involvement in all aspectds of your blog and the twice weekly word challenges, as well as the benefits to your brain of exercising it regularly. On the other the slightly ridiculous injunction to ‘rest your brain’ and suffer the consequences of withdrawal of the pleasure (and the stimulation and endorphins) of thinking, learning and growing. Then there were the Jubilee celebrations and the toll doing what would have been very easy eighteen months ago and which has now become a major activity.

          The sceptic in me wants to know if medical science really knows the answer, or if they are experimenting with ‘cures’ for long-COVID, hoping they’ll hit on a formula that work There seems no other option than to keep resting, keep nurturing yourself and letting your family look after you as much as you need and want.

          Take care and best wishes. Mx

          1. The long Covid specialist told me they still have a lot to learn about Covid and the long-term effects. But they are aware that Covid attacks the nervous system, mainly the vagus nerve. This is why resting the brain is important.

            I’m struggling this week with headaches and the awful confusion that accompanies them. Today I hung out laundry and helped Victoria tidy her kitchen following surgery on her shoulder and arm.
            It was nothing strenuous but I couldn’t even walk up the stairs afterwards, yet last week and the week before I felt so well.
            My fingers are crossed that this eases by the weekend.
            Thank you so much, Maureen. xx

            1. I can’t imagine how it must feel to be so debilitated, Sue. But your story gives me even more incentive to avoid contracting COVID if I possibly can. I have heard other, similar stories, even stories about marital breakups two years after the initial illness because of the after effects.
              Hopefully, you will be better by the weekend. It sounds as if you have good and bad patches, and that must be hard because you wouldn’t be able to plan anything.

  4. What an interesting post that covers so many aspects of learning Maureen. Well done …setting the bar high with learning is good and not giving in to “Oh its too hard!” Thanks for your inspirations, always!

    1. Thanks, Tricia. I love learning new things, and find the psychology of learning, especially in later life, particularly interesting. Haoppy as always to share information and knowledge!

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