A lot of people are scared by the information that creativity appears to decrease as we get older.
This often combines with their own experience as to how much harder it appears to be to learn new things compared to when you were a child, whether it be a language, academic skills or even new physical skills.
Recent research has even shown us that the adolescent brain does not finish developing until we are about 25 years old. So if you wonder why an 18 year old isn’t behaving like an “adult” yet, that is one reason why.
While it may be true that young brains are better able to form new connections, strengthen these networks and learn new things, this does not mean that once we end our childhood that our ability to learn stops.
After all, if as an adult you can learn the complicated names and relationships between characters in Game of Thrones or The Matrix, or how to cook a new recipe or program an Excel function, then you have evidence that you can continue learning at any age.
What enables this is your brain’s neuroplasticity.
This is the brain’s ability to continue changing its internal structure, the connections between neurons and neuronal networks, and sometimes even the size of various brain regions, all based on the activity of the brain.
For example, people who had their brains scanned before and after they learned to juggle showed an increase in the brain region associated with processing and storage of complex visual motion.
But most changes in the brain happen on a much smaller scale. There are also much shorter changes in the brain happening between neurons all the time, often lasting only between a few milliseconds and a few minutes. But with repetition, connections between neural networks can be strengthened so far that they result in the permanent gain of new knowledge and skills.
One of the ways that neuroplasticity works is through a process called Long-Term Potentiation. This happens when the synapse between two neurons releases a neurotransmitter, which activates the next neuron in the network. Repeated release of this neurotransmitter between those two neurons indicates that this connection is important and should stay active, so more releasing and receiving parts may grow on both cells to make the connection stronger the next time.
Another aspect of neuroplasticity is myelination, where neurons which are used more often get a thicker insulating layer, allowing them to perform faster and more efficiently.
So this combination between neurons themselves becoming more effective at transmitting signals, and the synapses between them becoming stronger, is how your brain is able to keep growing, gaining new skills and developing at any age.
However, that does not mean that it is as easy as it was when you are young.
One of the reasons why it becomes harder to learn new things (and unlearn old things) is that the more we use our brain, the stronger certain networks become as they wire together and become more efficient. This means it is often hard to overcome the patterns you have previously learned and see things with a fresh mind.
Research by Pat Levitt at the Harvard University Centre on the Developing Child indicates that while it is perfectly possible for an adult brain to continue to learn and respond to new experiences, it requires more effort to change than a younger brain:
So while you can learn new things at any age, it will take more focus and effort the older you get.
The good news is that this research all indicates that no matter how old you are, you can continue to be creative, try new things, adapt and innovate.
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