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Learning to Drive, or Anything Else

My 3 year old dog is incapable of learning new tricks. Fortunately, it seems we older dogs can, even without knowing it!

I lived in Cincinnati for 5 years back in the 80’s. I got lost with great regularity. I knew why: I had mainly lived in cities laid out in grids of north-south avenues and east-west streets. Anyone can find anything in a logical place like that. But Greater Cincinnati spans a twisty river, with hills and valleys as convoluted as your cerebral cortex. Other than the grid of downtown, ain’t no logic nowhere in Skyline Town. I accepted getting lost as a cost of doing business there.

I returned recently for the first time in 21 years. Rented a car. Asked for a map. Glanced at it. Instantly understood what connects to what and knew I could find anything.

What had happened in 21 years?

Mainly, I had lived in many more places and, unknowingly, had learned to relate to space differently. When I lived in Cincinnati, I got from one place to another by getting directions. Left here, right there, and you’ve connected two dots.

What I do now after a couple decades of travel in places without street addresses or straight lines is look at the context for those dots. When I understand the spatial relationship, I don’t need directions because there are many ways to connect them.

What is significant to me is that I learned this very different cognitive process in my 40s and 50s. It’s not linear. It’s contextual and nonverbal. Kind of like how kids learn to walk or speak. But I’d thought we lost that ability for nonlinear learning as we aged.

Apparently not. George Will (in an uncharacteristically good article that he ruins with a mean spirited partisan jab at the end) summarizes recent research by writing “Neuroscience demonstrates that the brain is not a finished product; neural networks can be rewired by [experience].”

That’s good news for everyone whose body is older today than yesterday: our minds don’t need to be.

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