The Art of Learning

by : Dr. Tim Sams

My temples begin to throb and I can feel the panic rising in my throat, as I sit in the classroom. The minutes tick by and I still don't know what he's talking about. I look around the class and everyone else seems calm. It's just me.

I rifle through my scribbled notes, race through sections of his handout, and burn holes through the diagram in the book. No help; I'm getting more lost and desperate. Heart pounding, my thoughts go NASCAR. I don't need this crap. It's Saturday and I should be with my family; or giving a lecture; not sitting in the back of the room. I feel stupid, out of control, and childish. A trickle of sweat runs down my back and finds my underwear. Great.

As we age, hopefully we feel more mature. We gain wisdom from our experiences with the memories of decade's worth of success and failure to guide our decisions. We become a little less freaked out by what other people think; a little more comfortable doing it our way. We settle into the familiar rhythms of our lives. If married with kids, we can view the drama and machinations of young, single adults with a mixture of amusement and condescension. And some of this sense of superiority is completely illusory.

The truth is that most of us are simply a divorce or spousal death away from that same drama. The rhythms of daily hassle become the glaze over life's uncertain, rough spots. Simple experience and the passage of time don't necessarily make us wiser or healthier. Just older.

I started a post doctoral Master's of Science in Psychopharmacology last month and until spring we're studying biochemistry. I haven't taken a class like this in over 20 years and I am stunned to feel the same old angst, confusion, and panic that I did back then. The difference is that back then, I had more energy, more time, and more motivation. I was kind of used to feeling confused and panicky.

In our childhood, teens, and 20s we are constantly confronted with novel experiences and brand new learning. We're reaching out, stretching the envelope, testing the boundaries. The challenge of uncertainty is around every corner; we still believe in our dreams.

As we progress through adulthood, we orient ourselves toward the familiar. Increasingly, we unconsciously avoid novel situations that challenge or frighten us. The simple tasks of living take up more and more of our time. Formal, effortful learning becomes an ever more distant memory. This really means that proactive, self- guided, healthy change becomes less and less likely. More of our time is spent passively responding to our environment rather than actively remaking it.

To age healthily, the most important thing you can do is to not smoke cigarettes or drink too much alcohol. The second thing is to exercise regularly. The third is to keep learning. Research has shown that our brains tend to shrink and our cognitive function to decline as we age. The hardware of experience lies in the nerve cells of the brain.

Over time, brain cells decay and network connections are broken. But, every time you learn something, a new connection, a new pathway is formed in the network of your brain. Some researchers believe that learning in older adulthood is the most important element in avoiding dementia or Alzheimer's disease. A learning brain is replacing decaying neurons and broken memory connections with new ones, healthier ones. It's better than Botox.

You should be pushing the envelope and testing the boundaries throughout your life. On page 30 of my book, Stepping Stones: Ten Steps..., I discussed the Mastery Map, a hierarchical list of challenging, scary things that would be good for you if you did them.

On that list should be simple learning:

  • Sign up for a class.

  • Find a new hobby.

  • Subscribe to a magazine outside of your comfort zone.

  • Go to a museum, exhibit, or planetarium.

  • Look through the adult education catalogs you get in the mail.

  • Read the weekend, calendar section of the paper for coming events.

  • Splash cold water on your face and stomp the feeling back into your brain.

  • Give yourself permission to wonder, to experience fear and awe again.

Do you remember why the sky is blue?

It is 6:30 a.m. Sunday morning and I just found out via e-mail that I passed my first biochemistry test. The rusted, creaking machinery of my brain feels a little better oiled. Maybe the next time you or I challenge ourselves and feel that surge of fear rising, we'll know. I'm old enough to have purpose; and young enough to feel passion.

Good morning and good light,

Dr. Tim Sams

My Sacred Journey

Copyright 2004. Dr. Tim Sams. All rights reserved.