Old Dogs Learn New Tricks

"... old dogs rarely have real difficulty learning new tricks; they more often have difficulty convincing themselves that it is worth the effort." (Schaie & Geiwitz, 1982)

In this article, Tony Buzan is emphasizing that memory loss associated with increasing age may be more of a reflection of how we view older people, how they view themselves, and how we test them in the laboratory, than actual memory decline due solely to the ageing process.

While test results often show poor memory performance in the elderly, two factors that have been shown to confound these test results are level of interest and the use of timed performance.

Reystak, in his book The Mind, spends a great part of the chapter on Ageing stressing that we see a decrease in speed of processing in the elderly.

Often in laboratory tests, we do not allow the elderly subject adequate time with which to encode and recall the information. Reystak points out that, if the elderly subjects are allotted as much time as needed, they often perform at a level that is comparable with younger subjects in terms of recall.

Walsh (1975) points out that the level of interest can affect performance of recall. He reports a study by Hulicka in which she tried to teach associations of actual words paired with nonsense letters. She found that many elderly subjects performed poorly because they refused to learn nonsense words, and felt that the task was not worth the effort. When the task was changed to an association of occupational names paired with actual surnames, the elderly performed better.

Walsh points out that lab experiments may often be perceived as meaningless and may negatively affect the elderly subjects' performance, while making the task meaningful may positively affect the performance.

An important area that Buzan brings up concerns the neuronal loss due to normal ageing. As Buzan states, there is no conclusive evidence in the literature regarding just how much of the brain is lost, and just what areas are affected. However, the interest regarding neuronal loss may be directed.

Reystak (1988) raises major theoretical issues that are particularly relevant here. He reports a study in which the amount of blood flow and oxygen consumption to the brain were compared in healthy 20 year-old men and healthy 70 year-old men. If there is substantial neuronal loss, there should also be a decrease in blood flow and oxygen consumption. The results showed that there was no difference between the groups in these measures.

Reystak points out that, while there may possibly be neuronal loss accompanying the ageing process, this loss may be offset by the redundancy and plasticity of the brain.

Redundancy suggests that there are a greater than necessary number of neurons in the brain, such that neurons may die with no reduction in observed behaviour.

For example, we may damage an area of the brain and still show little or no change in our behaviour.

Plasticity refers to the fact that the brain can change in organisation. For example, an area of the brain responsible for a particular function may be damaged with the results begin that another area of the brain may take over the functioning of the damaged area.

In this way, as Reystak points out, neuronal cell loss due to normal ageing may, in fact lead to greater functioning and more numerous connections in the remaining cells. This suggests that continually using the brain (i.e. making more associations) can offset any naturally occurring loss due to cell death. This "use it or lose it" idea is emphasized by Buzan.

There is a great deal of literature showing the effects of using the brain on the subsequent development of the brain. One interesting study is rather amusing.

Greenough (cited in Reystak, 1988) trained rats to reach with a particular paw for pieces of chocolate chip cookies. Later examination of the area of the brain responsible for the motor movement revealed more synaptic connections compared to the brains of untrained rats.

In a similar study that is quite famous in the literature, Greenough placed one group of rats in an enriched environment with many toys, while a second group was placed in a barren, impoverished environment. Later tests revealed that the rats in the enriched environment developed heavier brains with more connections than those in the impoverished environment.

There is also research which suggests that environment plays a critical role in human development.

Schaie (cited in Reystak, 1988) conducted a twenty-year study of 4,000 people and found that elderly people who maintained active social lives outperformed those who led restricted lives. In addition, by providing mental exercises utilisation spatial, numerical, and verbal skill, Schaie induced over half of a group of elderly volunteers to improve their performances.

Schaie further suggests that memory in the elderly can be improved by the use of mnemonics.

An interesting study describing the use of mnemonics in the elderly was conducted by Robertson-Tchabo, Hausman, & Arenberg (1982).

In the first phase of the study, elderly subjects were given a list of words and memories to recall. As expected, initial recall was low. The subjects were then given instruction on how to use a particular mnemonic while learning a list. Recall for the list studied using mnemonics, increased significantly.

However, days later, when they were required to learn and recall a list, performance was once again poor. It appeared that the subjects did not spontaneously use the mnemonic technique for the final list.

In the second phase of the experiment, elderly subjects were divided into three groups, all of which were required to master a mnemonic technique and apply it to the list learned in the training sessions.

During the following test sessions, subjects in all three groups were required to memorize and recall a list of words. The subjects in Group 1 were instructed to "use the method we have been using for the past few days". The subjects in Group 2 were instructed to form the associations of the mnemonics and to verbally describe the images. The subjects in Group 3 were never instructed to apply the mnemonic technique they have studied.

The result was that the subject in Group 3 recalled fewer words than those in Group 1 and Group 2. Interestingly, there was no difference in performance between the subjects in Group 1 and Group 2. This suggests that mnemonics are valuable aids to memory, but as the tape suggests, people need to learn how to actively develop and use them.

The information reported above supports the belief that your memory need not diminish with increasing age. As Buzan states, "Use it or lose it" perfectly describes the scientific literature.

By practicing and expanding your mental activities, new connections and associations will be developed throughout your lifetime. This finding is extremely relevant to you and your business.

All too often seniors in the business place are seen as incompetent because they can't perform as quickly as younger people. However, they have a wider range of experience and associations than younger, less experienced personnel, and their potential Mind Maps are invaluable.

It is critical to constantly challenge your mind and the minds of your co-workers, to strive to engage people and keep them involved, and to allow extra time for the elderly. Keep in mind that they are capable of learning new tricks provided that they see its relevance, perceive it is worthwhile, and feel motivated.


Reystak RM. The mind. 1988.

Robertson-Tchabo EA, Hausman CP, Arenberg D. A classical mnemonic for older learners: A trip that works in adult development and ageing. Little, Brown & Company, Boston; 1982.

Schaie KW, Geiwitz J. Adult development and ageing. Little, Brown & Company, Boston; 1982.

Walsh DA. Age differences in learning and memory. In Ageing: Scientific Perspectives And Social Issues. Brooks & Cole Publishing Company, Monterey, California; 1975.