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Old Dogs and Old Folks Can Learn New Tricks If They Take Baby Steps in Gaining New Skills

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, January 26, 2012

In music, foreign languages and new technology, children usually surpass adults in the ability to absorb knowledge and develop skill. But adults aren’t hopeless. They too can learn new skills if instruction is broken into small bits over longer periods of time.

Gary Marcus is a cognitive psychologist and student of the human mind who runs the Center for Language and Music at New York University. In "Guitar Tricks for a Middle-Aged Dog," a piece he wrote for the Wall Street Journal, Marcus describes a study by Stanford biologist Eric Knudsen on the learning capacities of adult and baby owls. While baby owls quickly learned to compensate for artificially distorted vision, adult owls didn’t. But Knudson discovered old owls did learn to compensate when presented much more slowly with smaller degrees of distortion.

At age 38, Marcus began using himself as a guinea pig to learn about adult learning. He had always wanted to play the guitar, but in school he had been considered musically inept, and as adult an expert suggested he suffered from congenital arrhythmias—inability to keep time even with a metronome. He chronicles his three-year-effort in his new book, Guitar Zero: the New Musician and the Science of Learning.

"Applied Neuroscience, the Six-String Method," a New York Times story by Bruce Headlam, tells about the book and Marcus’s musical and intellectual quest. Marcus figured his arrhythmia and a life-long tendency toward motion sickness might arise from his cerebellum. As a scientist, he wanted to know if his prefrontal cortex could be trained to compensate for what his cerebellum couldn’t do.

He took a sabbatical, because he knew this project would take time and concentration. And he was familiar with the work of K. Anders Ericsson, one of the psychologists who believe that true expertise requires at least 10,000 hours of seriously focused practice. Marcus began with Guitar Hero, a video game that rewards players for pressing the right buttons in time with recorded music. Then he bought a real guitar, read books, learned theory, found expert instructors, and practiced every single day. Despite some frustrations, he never gave up. He is now a competent musician, and even improved his rhythm enough that he was recently complimented on his dancing.

Read the Times story here. Click here to read "The Making of an Expert," an essay by Ericsson and colleagues on the value of deliberate practice and coaching.

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