Penguin Press - Best Articles of 2012
We’re highlighting our favorite articles and stories from the past twelve months or so. Enjoy:
by Gary Marcus
Can old dogs learn new tricks? Developmental psychologists have long said no. The so-called “critical periods” theory of learning says that if you want to learn something, start early in life. If that were true, there would be little point in adults trying to acquire new skills—and truckloads of New Year’s resolutions would never stand a chance.
But the evidence for this theory has begun to crumble, offering some hope to those of us who dream of self-improvement. With languages, for example, it turns out that the decline is gradual; the window certainly doesn’t slam shut the moment that puberty begins. Some adults even manage to learn to speak second languages like a native.
For years, the strongest evidence for youth as a once-in-a-lifetime period of learning seemed to come from animals. Take barn owls. Shortly after hatching, owl chicks calibrate their eyes with their ears. In a classic study, the Stanford biologist Eric Knudsen put prisms in front of owls’ eyes, disrupting their normal capacity to link what they saw with what they heard. Young owls easily learned to compensate for the distortion, whereas old owls could not.
Or so it appeared. Mr. Knudsen later discovered that adult owls aren’t hopeless after all, just slower. A baby owl can adapt to 23 degrees of distortion in just a few days; an adult can’t. But adults can manage just fine if the job is broken down into smaller chunks: a few weeks at 6 degrees, another few weeks at 11 degrees and so on.
If adults take things bit by bit, adult owl-style, a whole new world of possibility begins to emerge.
My own dream had always been to learn a musical instrument, but every attempt, from grade school onward, had ended in failure. A few summers ago, at the age of 38, I decided to take one last shot.
To my surprise, there was scarcely any scientific literature on whether adults could really pick up an instrument late in life. The problem wasn’t a lack of scientific interest in adult musical education. It was a lack of subjects.
To learn a musical instrument, you need to put in a lot of work—10,000 hours is a number that is often cited—and to do a proper study, you’d need a reasonably large sample of adult novices with sufficient commitment. Nobody had studied the outcomes of adults who put in 10,000 hours because so few adults were willing and able to invest that kind of time.
At that moment, I decided to become my own guinea pig.
Illustration by Brian Stauffer