It is a phenomenon that has been dubbed by psychologists as the “paradox of expertise”: once young adults enter that murky territory known as early middle age, they stop doing something that has hitherto served them profoundly well from the moment they were born: they basically stop learning.
“Call it the curse of knowledge if you want, but as a species most of us reach a point where we stop learning and become knowledgeable — or at least, believe that we are knowledgeable,” commented Peter Russo, an experienced high school teacher in Baton Rouge, who was recently awarded Teacher of the Year for his exceptional work with students and staff. “However, in order to achieve our full potential, and avoid repeating the same mistakes and unhealthy patterns, we need to keep learning throughout our entire lives.”
To that end, Peter Russo has highlighted three tips for lifelong learning that everyone should adopt and embrace, regardless of where they live, what they do, and indeed, how many candles are planted into their birthday cake:
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Most adults read on the web (case-and-point: this article), and those who work outside of the house typically wade through piles of corporate communications on a daily basis, such as emails, memos, reports — and the list goes on. While that kind of reading certainly is not useless (albeit often boring), it is not nearly as intellectually beneficial as picking up a good old-fashioned book. Studies have shown that avid readers have larger vocabularies, a greater knowledge of the world, and possess more empathy than people who read sporadically or not at all.
And if those were not enough reasons to head to the library and check out Moby Dick or Don Quixote, consider this: Yale researchers tracked more than 3,600 adults over the age of 50 for 12 years, and found that those who read books for half an hour a day lived nearly two years longer than those who only read newspapers or magazines for a few minutes a day.
“Reading a book in any format is clearly better than not reading anything at all,” commented Peter Russo. “However, people who love the convenience and cost of reading books on screens instead of paper should be aware that e-books lack spatial navigability, which can create a sense of disorientation and ultimately lead to skimming books instead of getting immersed in them — and this includes non-fiction as well as fiction. All else being equal, paper books and their old school technology can be the superior option to boost brainpower and comprehension.”
Of all modern myths, the illusion of multi-tasking might be the most persistent — and also among the most damaging. Research by neuroscientists have confirmed that the brain is not wired to perform simultaneous tasks. What seems like multi-tasking — for example, talking on the phone and surfing the web at the same time — is really a process of switching tasks. And while this may not sound all that problematic or alarming, it is both: because the task-switching process is not fluid or seamless. There is a distinct stop-and-start mechanism triggered in the brain. This is not just exhaustive, but it obstructs focus, concentration and retention; all of which are core components of effective learning at any age. In fact, research has revealed that (so-called) multi-tasking can plunge productivity by as much as 40 percent, reduce IQ, and significantly increase the likelihood of making mistakes.
“The brain is truly magnificent, and we have not yet even fully identified how much it can do and achieve — but we know that multi-tasking simply is not on the list of capabilities,” commented Peter Russo. “To optimize learning, people need to be organized, scheduled, and plan ahead. For example, if they are learning a new language — the kind with code, or the kind with words — then they should strive to set a specific and regular time to study, and they should also eliminate or at least minimize disruptions. The repetitive and seemingly harmless glance at their phone or computer every few minutes, is the equivalent of putting up stop signs on the road every 50 feet. And really, what email or text is so important that it cannot simply wait half an hour or an hour? Nobody is sending out an emergency meme or urgent photo of what they’re having for dinner.”
Everyone knows that stress triggers a fight-or-flight response; which, unfortunately, are often two bad options for the situation at hand. However, what many people do not know, is that stress inhibits the brain’s ability to learn. Here is why: during periods of stress, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) system releases glucocorticoids, including cortisol which is the body’s primary stress hormone and has a direct effect on the lungs, heart, blood circulation, metabolism, skin and immune system.
In addition, HPA triggers the release of adrenaline, norepinephrine, dopamine and other catecholamine neurotransmitters — all of which activate neurons that are located deep in the brain’s medial temporal lobe (called the amygdala). The end result is powerful feelings of fear and anxiety, which may indeed serve us very well when we are running out of a burning building, defending ourselves from an attack, or rushing to aid someone in distress, but is categorically antithetical to effective learning.
“The moral to this biological tale is not that that people shouldnt get stressed out about being stressed out,” commented Peter Russo. “Stress is a part of life — both for kids and adults — and there are times when it can be beneficial, such as when it alerts us to things about our actions or attitudes that we may want to change for the better. For example, stress due to a lack of career advancement might inspire us to get a certification or improve our work habits. However, adults who want to make lifelong learning a reality instead of an ideal need to find smart and safe ways to de-stress; not just when they are engaged in learning, but throughout their day. Eating a healthy and balanced diet, getting enough doctor-approved exercise, going for walks in nature, listening to soothing music, and enjoy quality and restful sleep are all part of the plan.”
Peter Russo’s Bottom Line
Lifelong learning is not just a way to acquire new knowledge and expand horizons: it is intrinsically rewarding and can improve both the quality and quantity of life. However, none of these rewards have a chance of happening without the glue that holds it all together: commitment.
“Deciding to become a lifelong learner should not be like making a New Year’s Resolution that starts out with much fanfare, but fades into obscurity within months, weeks, or sometimes days,” commented Peter Russo. “People need to make a serious and personal commitment to continuously learn. They need to take ownership and realize that it is ultimately up to them — not their boss, family member, friend or teacher — to decide if they want to remain a dynamic and engaged learner, or if they want to succumb to the paradox of expertise. In a way, continuous learning is the best and most valuable gift a person can give themselves and, also the best gift they can give others. The more they learn, the more they can emphasize, understand and help. Everyone wins.”