How Plastic Is Your Brain?

A guitar-playing scientist proves you can learn new skills at any age

I took up the clarinet in fourth grade, and stuck it out in the school band through eighth grade. But I never really took to the instrument, never put the time in to practice, and eventually found myself at school concerts playing from the last seat of the last row of the band.
I didn’t return to music for many years, until a mid-20s infatuation with the harmonica. It was more fun than the clarinet, but I dropped that pretty quickly too. Now, at a somewhat more advanced age, I’d imagined the opportunity to pick up another instrument had passed me by. After all, you can't learn to play an instrument in middle age, can you?  
Gary Marcus says you can, and he has. The psychology professor and director of New York University’s Center for Language and Music had, like me, never shown any musical aptitude. But then he decided to give it another shot, and learn to play guitar — not to become the new Hendrix, but to prove he could, and to have fun trying. His journey, and what it taught him about the vastly underestimated capability of our middle-aged minds, is the basis of his new book, Guitar Zero (Penguin, 2012).
"When I started, I had literally no musical talent," Marcus says. "I’d had a series of bad experiences, starting with a fourth-grade recorder teacher who suggested I quit."
But then, over 18 months – he took a sabbatical from teaching to focus on his guitar lessons and the research that informed his book – Marcus practiced guitar nearly every day, for as much as six hours, and he became skilled. "I’m not great but I’m good enough to make music for myself, and I can play with other musicians," he says. Marcus believes that to be a truly great musician, one needs natural talent, "but to merely have a good time and feel like you’ve fulfilled yourself, persistence can make up for a lack of natural talent."
Rewiring Your Brain, Every Day

Marcus's experience fits with other recent research into the way humans and animals learn that has overturned the notion that it will always be difficult for older creatures to learn new skills because their brains lack the “plasticity” of youthful minds. As it turns out, they just need a little more time. One well-known study in the field found that older owls could not learn to adapt to major changes in their environment as quickly as chicks, but when the changes were introduced in pieces, they adapted just fine.

“Plasticity is a fancy word for saying learning in the brain. It’s not this mystical thing. Plasticity is all around us," says Marcus, who has also written such books as The Birth of the Mind. Each time we learn something new, we rewire our brain, he explains. Anytime you learn something new is a kind of rewiring of the brain. "People are afraid they can’t learn new things but all of us do it every day," Marcus says, "and it extends throughout our lives.”
Marcus’ and his peers’ research has also led to a rejection of the "critical periods" theory, which had posited that only during certain windows during childhood could the brain successfully acquire complex skills such as playing an instrument or learning a foreign language. "The 'critical period' idea is seriously overrated relative to the data out there," says Marcus, who was 38 when he started his crash course in guitar – a young middle-ager, to be sure, but still far removed from childhood.

"It may get harder as you get older," Marcus says, "but there’s no good data that says you can’t learn when you get older." He says there was little formal research supporting the theory in part because too few adults had the time or inclination to devote thousands of hours to disproving the idea by mastering piano or Mandarin in middle age. So he became his own guinea pig.

How to Do It

The message of Guitar Zero, Marcus says, "is that if I can do it, you can do it." Here are some tips he picked up on his journey:
  • Make a commitment. “Getting good at something requires you do put the time in," Marcus says. That may be difficult for people in middle age who are still working and raising kids, he says, “but if you give up a bit of TV watching each day you may find you have an extra 30 minutes and if you give it that time, you will make progress. Retirees are in a perfect position to do it.”
  • Mix it up. “The trick to getting good at anything is to fool yourself into being willing to practice,” Marcus says. "You have to find ways to vary the practice you do to avoid getting bored.” As he learned guitar, Marcus would vary the backing tracks, tempos, and musical styles he played each days to keep his practice fresh.
  • Don't give up. Marcus concedes that there are some differences between the adult mind and the youthful brain. Adults need to take things more incrementally than kids, focus on new skills step-by-step, be patient, and, perhaps most important, resist frustration. Remember how your kids sounded at their first recital? If you're new to the violin, there's no reason to think you should sound any better your first time out.
  • Focus on improving. “Always pay attention to your weakest points when you practice,” Marcus says, and remember that this is the key to progress. 
  • Make it intergenerational. Learning an instrument alongside a grandchild can be a great experience. “Retirees may have to work a little harder to maintain pace with the kids,” Marcus says, but the results, and the journey, are worth it. Consider a Suzuki-based program in your area that encourages both the child and adult partner to learn together.
Gary Drevitch
By Gary Drevitch
Gary Drevitch was senior Web editor for Next Avenue's Caregiving and Health & Well-Being channels.

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