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It's official: old dogs CAN learn new tricks

It’s common to assume that with age we get more set in our ways and that our brains don’t work as well as they used to. But MRI scans show something interesting: older brains work in a more integrated way.

Carl Honoré, the London-based journalist who wrote a book about the ‘slow’ movement (slow food and so on) has turned his attention to ageing.

In his most recent (2018) book, Bolder, he’s outlined what he learned from talking to people around the world who are challenging our ideas about what it means to grow older. 

He didn’t have to go far to catch up with one of them. His neighbour, a man in his 80s called Stanley McMurtry — better known as ‘Mac’ — won the UK’s Cartoonist of the Year award in 2017 for the seventh time.

Mac was still going to work every day drawing cartoons for the Daily Mail. Moreover, he felt he was better at his craft in his 80s than he was in his 20s. 

It was when Mac told him, “I feel very creative”, that Honoré started investigating the link between ageing and creativity.

He learned that MRI scans have shown that in middle-age we start using more regions of the brain to tackle problems. Combined with our experience and knowledge, this integration gives us access to whole new ways of doing things.

Many people in retirement take up pursuits such as painting. Honoré argues that maybe this isn’t just because they have more time on their hands; it might also be because their brain organisation is different.

That might feel hard to believe given we’ve all had the frustrating experience of forgetting everyday words or the names of people we know. But Honoré’s point is that while we might lose a bit, we also gain.

There are plenty of examples of older people’s creativity. Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Edison were still inventing in their 70s and 80s, and Freud produced some of his more influential work after he was 65. 

The arts also provide evidence that painters, actors, writers and composers continue to produce quality work through their entire lives. If you’re in Brisbane, check out Margaret Olley’s exhibition at GOMA.

Meryl Streep, Judi Dench and Helen Mirren have been revered for decades. Honoré also mentions musicians Leonard Cohen, B.B. King, Johnny Cash and David Bowie.

The bottom line is that there are different kinds of creativity, and we can be creative at any age.

The biggest obstacle isn’t that our brains aren’t capable; they clearly are. The obstacle is that we believe erroneous ageist stereotyping.

As Honoré points out, the adage that ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ isn’t even true of dogs. 

Photo Source: Bigstock

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Tuesday, June 25, 2019 | Rhonda Anderson