Great Philosophers have always philosophized about how youth is problematic. Many great philosophers are often dismissive about young people. One famous quote attributed to Socrates is that youth is wasted on the young. There seems to be an assumption that understanding and wisdom tend to go together hand in hand with age. This is not necessarily true. Just as you get older, it doesn’t necessarily mean you become more intelligent. The reality is that it is easier for young people to learn than older people. We’re not just talking about technology or bodies of academic knowledge. I’m talking about knowledge in general. If you are really honest, we would realize that the older we get, the harder it is for us to learn. The most ironic thing about all this is that this inability to learn new things is not so much a function of our mental faculties, aging or our physical faculties being incapable of processing and incorporating new information. It goes much deeper than that. Keep the discussion in mind if this observation applies to you.

It Is Not a Brain Aging Thing

The reality is that as you get older few radically, you have more connections between neurons and nerve cells in your brain. You have a more advance piece of software and hardware that constitute your mind to able to process and incorporate information more easily. However, as individuals get older, they have a tougher time keeping up with new technology, new philosophies and new ways of thinking. This is very ironic and doesn’t seem to fit. The good news is that it’s not a brain-aging thing. In fact, up until your 50’s, the physical component of your mental faculties are actually improving. As more and more new neuron connections are made in your brain and the more experiences you have, you have more capacity for learning. The reason for a reduced ability to incorporate and act on new information lies elsewhere. It is not a physical thing. It has nothing to do with your physical or mental hardware. It has everything to do with attitudes.

Hardening of Attitudes

One of the biggest problems with getting older is that we tend to assume that just because we have seen certain patterns in the past that we can safely predict that these patterns will produce the same results in the future. In other words, we’re making assumptions. In a very real sense, people become prisoners of their assumptions. One of the most common ways older people proclaim this hardening of attitude is a harden attitude that saying “been there, done that” or “I’ve seen it before”. In a very real sense, when we see a certain stimuli, our mature brains process the experience and immediately relate it with something that we’ve experienced in the past. Once we’re able to make this connection, we then shut off the new experience and only see one conclusion. This harden attitude is very harmful when it comes to learning something new. By trying to restrict new experiences based on what we think we know from the past, we cheat ourselves of new experiences and new conclusions. This has everything to do with attitude. Why? This is a choice. This is not physically compelled or even reasonable. It is just a mental habit or it is just a default way of doing things because for the longest time, thinking this way helped us. We are so set in this pattern of thinking that it becomes so automatic that it has become some sort of cognitive prison that blocks us from gaining more information and making newer connections. In short, it has produced an attitude that gets in the way of new learning.

Dumbing Yourself Down Due To Assumptions

The most harmful consequence of automatically relating new stimuli to past experiences is that it block us from processing the whole range of new stimuli. In other words, when you see part of a picture, your mind automatically assumes that since that part of the picture youíve seen looks very similar to what youíve seen in the past, you donít need to see the rest of the picture. In a very real sense, you think youíre being smart when you do this. In practical terms, you think youíre very efficient when you think this way. The problem with this is that by failing to fully appreciate the new body of information, we dumb ourselves down. Why? That is the very definition of dumbing yourself down. You donít process new information in their totality. You process information in terms of types, models or templates. When you process knowledge this way, youíre basically relying on caricatures or outlines that may not reflect the nuanced reality that you are dealing with. You let your assumptions override your ability to truly understand the sets of stimuli and data in front of you. You are basically letting your understanding of past patterns govern new data that you havenít really fully seen or fully experienced yet. This is a very definition of dumbing yourself down because thereís nothing dumber than purposely taking bits and fragments and hoping and assuming that it is what you think it is. The smart way of doing things of course is to look at things in totality to see the full picture and piece things together based on what exist instead of what should be. It is no surprise that people think in terms of assumptions tend to be very rigid. They tend to be judgmental. They also tend to be scared of change.

A Hard Attitude of Cynicism Makes It Hard To Learn

The evil twin of thinking in terms of types and templates is cynicism. Cynicism rears its ugly head every time there is a negative assumption or negative association with certain fragments of data or experiences that we encounter. Instead of looking at experiences with the fresh set of eyes, we not only just look at a portion of data that we see, hear, touch, smell, but we also tie it into a programmed response that has its own emotional component. I am of course talking about cynicism. For example: if there was a new business opportunity that comes your way and you only understand maybe thirty percent of it, you are then forced to look at the part that you donít understand and try to make sense of it based on your past experience. If your past experience is negative regarding that thirty percent data set, your cynicism kicks in by saying that the whole thing is negative. This is a serious problem because it keeps people away from genuine opportunities that can actually lead to positive outcomes. This is very harmful of course when it comes to relationships. Unfortunately, people with a cynical attitude think that they are being smart. They think that they are being clever. They think that theyíre thinking in efficient and effective terms. The sad reality is that for the small fraction of the time that you are correct, you are paying a high price in missed opportunities.

Itís Hard To Learn When You Think Thatís Not Fun

Itís hard to learn when you think that something is going to be negative. Itís hard to learn that the process is going to be a hassle. Itís very hard to incorporate and implement ideas and information when you think that it is going to be a hassle. This is precisely whatís going on when you look at a certain information and tie it into something negative automatically. In fact, your expectation that itís going to be negative colors the rate that you process information and the overall effectiveness of how you incorporate that information.

Given all the reasons above, itís not hard to figure out why older people have a tougher time learning new things. There is a key lesson we can learn from children. They look at with many new experiences with a blank slate. There are assumptions. There are no templates. There are no emotional hang ups that keep them from tackling key data patterns in a fresh way. Since they are able to do this, they have less emotional barriers that hold them back from fully learning. The good news is that this is all learned behavior. We can try to manage these mental and emotional habits that hold us back from fully comprehending and incorporating a new information. Learning after all is a series of choices.