Our recent blogs have emphasized the need to upskill and reskill to remain relevant in the workplace. But there is another reason why we should be motivated to keep learning – good brain health. A few years ago, Norman Doidge wrote a book called The Brain that Changes Itself where he documented the stories of people who had undergone ‘neuroplastic transformations’ and illuminated the emerging science of brain plasticity. A leader in the field, Michael Merznich, who Doidge quotes at length, argues that with the right training, we can all learn to perceive with greater precision, speed and retention. However, the brain needs proper nourishment and exercise. Gains in intelligence don’t come from the same old routines, rather through constantly learning. Without mental stimulation, Merznich warns, plasticity wastes away.
General intelligence is understood to be made up of two critical parts – fluid and crystalized intelligences. Fluid intelligence is closely linked to innovation and creativity, including the ability to think abstractly, to reason and to come up with problem solving strategies and it is not reliant on educational attainment or experiences. Crystallized intelligence is based on accumulated knowledge as a result of prior learning and past experiences. Both are important in everyday life, indeed fluid intelligence feeds into crystalized intelligence.
Assumptions about older workers often revolve around the idea of cognitive decline including a lack of innovation and creativity. Such assumptions are based on the long-held belief that fluid intelligence peaks in late adolescence while crystalized intelligence increases with age. However, our understanding of the intelligences is evolving all the time, and recent research provides encouraging news for older workers.
Firstly, some research suggests that fluid intelligence peaks much later than initially thought, possibly not until people reach their 40s, and that productivity is maintained with age even among workers who have a decreased capacity to process new information (linked to fluid intelligence). Researchers explain this by pointing to crystalized intelligence offsetting losses in fluid intelligence but also suggest that cognitive reserves can provide older workers with a buffer.
Secondly, there is increasing evidence that with brain training fluid intelligence can be improved even in older adults. This can be achieved through specific working memory tasks. Working memory is short term and focused on what you are currently thinking about while long term memory refers to the storage of facts and information over time. Researchers have discovered that training focused on working memory actually increased unrelated cognitive skills such as reasoning and problem solving. Being active also has a part to play, with the use of fine-tuned motor skills and regular daily exercise improving working memory and therefore fluid intelligence.
What is especially important for brain plasticity is going beyond the familiar. Learning new skills opens the door to new ideas and improves mental clarity. Brain training sites now abound, among them one developed by Merznich called Brainhq and another called n-back, used in the working memory research referred to above. The key message of all this research is that you must be prepared to leave your comfort zone if you want to flourish mentally as you age.
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