Brain Plasticity and Adult Learners

Research has shown that due to the aging brain, adults experience a decline in cognitive functions such as processing speed, working memory and long-term memory. There seems to be a precipitous decline after the age of 40 (Hertzog et al., 2008). However, it is believed that older adults ”may be able to compensate for their decline in basic cognitive functioning by bringing their considerably greater verbal and world knowledge to bear upon the solution of a given problem” (OECD, 2007, p. 215). Although there is evidence of cognitive decline with aging, interestingly, there are also some age-related changes that can make a person wiser and gain wisdom. Wisdom allows a person to see the big picture in multiple perspectives, and to see the interconnectedness and interdependencies among things.

In recent years, there has been widespread interest in commercializing training programs to enhance the cognitive functions of adults, encouraged by cutting edge research on neurogenesis and neuroplasticity. Cognitive training studies have demonstrated that intensive training can improve the cognitive functioning of adults (Hertzog et al., 2008). Neurogenesis is the process by which new neurons are generated in human brain. Contrary to previous beliefs, new research evidence has demonstrated that new neurons are continually generated in the hippocampus and other regions of the brain. This finding has important implications for learning and memory in adulthood. Research suggests that an increase in the number of neurons results in an increase in cognition and memory capacity (OECD, 2007).

Neuroscience research has debunked the taken for granted dictum that “old dogs can’t learn new tricks”. New evidence-based information indicates that contrary to previous beliefs: “training-induced plasticity is not restricted to developing brains” (Wan & Schlaug, 2010, p. 7). Longitudinal studies (Draganski, B; Gaser, C; Kempermann; G; Kuhn, H.G.; Winkler; J.; Buchel; C.; May, 2006) (Scholz, J; Klein, M. C; Behrens, T. E; Johansen-Berg, 2009) demonstrated that even a mature brain is malleable and that structural changes to enable the brain to cope with information processing demands of the environment can be induced by intensive skills training (Hertzog et al., 2008). After conducting an exhaustive literature review on the effects of enrichment training on adult cognitive development, Hertzog and his colleagues concluded that recent studies have successfully demonstrated that training cognitive and metacognitive control strategies can contribute to the cognitive enrichment of adults. They also found that: “training cognitive-control strategies, including attentional control and metacognitive self-regulation, may prove to have more broad generalizability to cognitive task environments that training approaches that teach specific strategies relevant of specific cognitive tasks” (Hertzog et al., 2008, p. 44 ).

The brain plasticity revolution has sparked the interest of entrepreneurs for developing and marketing brain training programs. Brain training is expected to grow to a 6 billion dollar industry in 2020. Concerns for mental health of a graying population and productivity challenges at the workplace, which is estimated to be 2 trillion dollars, are the drivers of this exponential growth of brain training. The great majority of adults believe that it is their responsibility to take care of their brain fitness, and nearly half (48%) of those who have experienced brain training exercises believed it made a difference (Sharpbrains, 2012)

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