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I wonder how much of brain elasticity in as adults is just due to attitude. I generally find kids more eager to jump into new things, while adults are more stubborn and complacent towards new experiences. Once you have money or kids it's a lot easier to just have someone else do it for you. Still, at 82 I imagine most people will start developing issues with memory so it probably isn't an easy feat, and she's found more success than I have...



I think that openness and confidence are major factors. Having taught older adults to use computers, one of the major difficulties is getting them past the fear that they might "break" the computer and the need to memorise rote instructions rather than experiment with the interface.

The body language is quite distinctive - tentatively pressing keys with an outstretched index finger as if the keyboard might jump up and bite them, pushing around the mouse with their fingertips rather than grasping it with their whole hand, leaning away from the screen as if it might explode in their face.

Some older people just can't internalise the idea of looking at the screen for clues as to how to proceed. No matter how many times they're told and shown, they just don't get the idea that computing is interactive. They try to memorise every interaction as a series of rote steps, so if something unexpected happens they're completely lost. They are completely incapable of navigating a UI without very explicit instruction, even if it's broadly similar to UIs they know how to navigate. Something as trivial as accidentally scrolling down a few lines on a website is a complete showstopper. I don't understand it, but I find it endlessly fascinating.


The part about memorizing rote steps is roughly what you would expect from any kind of beginner in any field or skill set. But the part about being all tentative seems like a difference between a beginner who is older and one who is a little kid. The old person has spent a lifetime learning that rash actions can have bad consequences, while the kid hasn't yet. In other words the kid doesn't know or care about breaking the computer, and so probably learns faster as a result. (Good thing it's hard to break the computer and the consequences are usually nil. Wouldn't necessarily recommend the same approach for something like base-jumping or neurosurgery.)

I wonder how much it would help these people if you framed it more as an interaction with a person. Which it is. For example, telling them things like "OK so the programmer who wrote this told the computer to grab that bit you just typed, and display it for you over here [point, point] for your reference." In other words I wonder whether knowing a little about what's going on inside the thing, and the fact that it was just some silly ordinary dufus that wrote the software, helps a person like that be a better end-user.


I've seen these exact behaviors countless times, ever since I was the "kid who knows computers" (in the 90's) trying to walk adults through using them.

Oh, and when you ask them to "look at the screen", they're only mentally able to process a 2-square-inch "window area" at any given moment. So you first have to direct their gaze, very specifically, before you can actually expect them to read and process anything. (Of course it doesn't help that many of them used bifocals that made it difficult to actually see anything up close, except maybe a book, without squinting at a weird angle. Not sure if that's still an issue today.)


As much as I'd agree with the symptoms you guys are describing when it comes to my parents and grandparents, I don't think this is much of an age problem at all.

The same thing happens to my kids when I present them with a bash shell. They don't understand how to read the instructions, and they're uncomfortable with text commands. They don't want to type 'man' or 'help', and they give up very quickly. Everything they use on computers and game consoles are GUIs, most of them extremely easy to use by the standards of text interfaces like bash & vi.

This is a familiarity problem. You have years and years of experience with your OSes, which is what allows you to see outside the 2-inch window when you use a new application. You know exactly what you can ignore, and exactly what you need to pay attention to. They don't. Being unfamiliar with all of it and not having any idea how any of it works is what makes it seem like they're not learning quickly, but it's more because they're trying to learn everything at once, and are overwhelmed, not because they're not learning at all.


> The same thing happens to my kids when I present them with a bash shell. They don't understand how to read the instructions

Uhm, the issue here is squarely on Bash's end, not your kid's. Even the Windows command prompt is far more intuitive to learn. I know because I vividly remember how much more confused I got when learning the former.

In Windows, when you type "help", it actually gives you helpful commands: COPY, MOVE, DEL, REN/RENAME, etc. and at least the basic commands are actually what you'd expect. At least you have a foothold somewhere that you can ground yourself, and you start learning a bit more every time.

Try that in Bash, and good luck learning out how to do anything in Bash on your own. Oh, you want help? I gotchu! I'm guessing you're looking for job_spec, bg, compopt, coproc, disown, shopt, or trap? Oh I'm so sorry, you said all you wanted was to just copy a file? Haha I'm just a shell! You can't expect me to know how know what it means to "copy" a file! I can't even find that command! But if you need help, type "man -k" (what kind of a name is that??) to find out more about other commands. Oh, so you typed "man -k"? Okay, "apropos what?"??? (You, thinking to yourself: is 'apropos' even an English word?? I literally just typed in man -k like they told me to, and I got back a question I don't understand...) And on and on and on, until weeks later you realize the darn command was helpfully named 'cp' and not 'copy'...


Fully agree with the crapiness of learning Bash 100%. Bash is very hard to learn compared to, say, the OS UI in Android or Nintendo Switch.

But, my point is that my kids lose all their confidence and all their patience, and they become tentative and fearful. They show all the same symptoms that were mis-attributed to age in the above comments.

On a game console, my kids are not afraid to explore every menu and push every button. In a text interface, they are lost and they don't try things. They seem to learn slowly and they don't seem to listen to instruction because of how different text UIs are from the GUIs they know. When I get a new text interface, I know all kinds of things to try, and I do so without much fear.


> In Windows, when you type "help", it actually gives you helpful commands: COPY, MOVE, DEL, REN/RENAME, etc. and at least the basic commands are actually what you'd expect. At least you have a foothold somewhere that you can ground yourself, and you start learning a bit more every time.

Yes, this. I recall back in the MS-DOS days that I frequently used a text-GUI help menu that showed all the commands you could do and what each one did.

Personally, this is what I struggle with on *nix shells - I can do the very basics but there's little guidance showing you a broad overview of what is possible. Granted, the world is bigger now but if you asked me how to do a random task I'd probably google it first instead of reading a man page.


> Personally, this is what I struggle with on *nix shells

Once you learn the 8000 or so commands, it becomes incredibly intuitive.


Don't forget all the little tricks in chaining them! And all the magic you can do with pipes.


> Personally, this is what I struggle with on *nix shells

It's not just the shells! ;)


Only problem is, those commands are useless. COPY won't back up a directory tree. You need XCOPY. Oops, XCOPY chokes for weird reasons and terminates with a strange error message because a path was more than 255 bytes. It needs a bazillion options to do the equivalent of GNU's "cp -a". If you go online to get help with this, the best advice you get is to download and install something called RoboCopy.

Yes, MS-DOS was easy to learn. XCOPY worked in MS-DOS.


https://unix.stackexchange.com/a/87128

"copy doesn't copy directory structures, it will only copy the files, hence the error message you're encountering. To do a deep copy such as this you can enlist either the tar command and use the construct tar cvf - --files-from=... | (cd /home/tmp/test/files/; tar xvf -) or you can just use rsync."

That's so much better..


cp most certainly does copy directory structures. Just not filtered ones whereby just certain entries are arbitrarily selected from the source tree and only those are replicated in the destination tree.

The issue in the question is that the person has expanded, into the cp command line, a bunch of full paths, effectively like "cp a/b/c/file1 a/b/d/file2 .... dest" and wants those relative paths to be re-created under dest as dest/a/b/c/file1 and so on. Indeed, cp does not do that; it simply puts the specified objects file1 file2 ... into dest.

An option to create each object's relative path under dest would be useful, but it would be a pretty awful default behavior.

GNU cp has this option:

  `--parents'
     Form the name of each destination file by appending to the target
     directory a slash and the specified name of the source file.  The
     last argument given to `cp' must be the name of an existing
     directory.  For example, the command:

          cp --parents a/b/c existing_dir

     copies the file `a/b/c' to `existing_dir/a/b/c', creating any
     missing intermediate directories.
GNU Coreutils is in active development, unlike the Windows command line which is basically abandonware (as, to be even-handed, is the Unix (tm) command line.)


When talking with people who struggle, I talk about the that the difference between being able to see a footprint to track a new animal in the forest and you being able to use a somewhat novel computer interface are based on the same principles of experience and ignoring the piles of useless information.


Agree, they just not familiar the computer as us.


As an engineer myself, I'd say one of the harder aspects of my job is using all the freaking GUIs and interfaces presented to me. Granted, I wouldn't consider many of these interfaces to even be considered "good" by most standards, but so many designs are unintuitive I really think thats the root of the problem.


It is tough because there definitely are people who are very nervous about trying things on a computer. We just had a lady today worried about using a Mac as she is used to Windows. It is a slightly different paradigm in terms of finding programs and I remember being a bit lost at first. But I also have confidence with computers and am okay with trying things and searching for how to do things.

If you lack that basic curiosity and courage, I don't really know how "intuitive" anything can be. Isn't "intuition" driven by understanding concepts behind things? The best way to get that intuition is through a bit of instruction and a lot of experimentation.


Yeah, but I can understand this mindset. Like, I think about home maintenance. Some screw-ups are no big deal and some of them I'm going to do a lot of damage and need help fixing it. I'm not exactly gung-ho about knocking walls down with a sledge hammer without knowing what I'm doing.

Now, you might answer that you can't really break anything that badly with software, but I'd say that's not right. I could delete documents I needed with no way to recover them, or end up with ransomware, or end up putting my credit card number somewhere I shouldn't have, or whatever, and I'll likely be bewildered and unsure what happened, if I don't know anything about computers.


That's true, it is just difficult to know what level of expertise your users are at and what responsibility do you have to educate them?


Well, it can certainly be extremely frustrating to deal with user education, especially with users who clearly don't really want to learn. But it helps to imagine that all of us are like this in some ways. I think experience in a call center and as a junior system administrator has made me a more empathetic developer, anyway.


I notice the same thing. At least in my experience, I think it's generational experience not age or ignorance. I'll use my father as an example. He grew up poor, having to build or fix things for his family. Guy could build anything, build and rebuild engines, appliances, even electronics. But what these all have in common...they aren't interactive, at all. It's a process, and even a tiny mistake can ruin the entire thing or get yourself hurt. Compound that with being told as a kid not to touch expensive things (say, TV) or you'll break it, dangers of being shocked by capacitors, etc. In the end I think you end up with people who really are scared of computers. It's a new way of thinking (interactive vs process), and years of fear of breaking expensive things. Compound that further from experiences of trying to use a computer freely, getting scammed or getting a virus, getting gouged for money by Geek Squad and losing all their files/bookmarks...of course they're afraid of messing up. Just my opinion, of course, I have no hard data to back it up.


> Having taught older adults to use computers, one of the major difficulties is getting them past the fear that they might "break" the computer

This is the exact same problem I've always had many times when tinkering with electronics, so I can wholeheartedly understand it. Fortunately with computers you can pretty much promise laymen that any problem they cause fixable with no cost (except time), but in the case of electronics I find it much more difficult to overcome the fear that I might actually physically fry something and need to buy a new one. Anyone have tips for that?


I've been tinkering with electronics for about 30 years. Can do some cool stuff like assembling a power supply from scratch or an amplfier, can also put together projects with arduinos, raspberries, etc. I still fry components once in a while. But it's fun! If you are a programmer one hour of your time is worth a lot more than the cost of the components of many fun projects.

A few tips: - Do not touch anything you cannot afford to lose. - Buy at least twice as many components as needed for a project, if this is too expensive, that's a good sign you might want to get more experience with more simple projects before taking on this one. - Avoid soldering as much as possible, at least at the beginning. - If you want to learn how to solder do it with very simple circuits like those that only include LEDs and resistors. Practice a lot and then use your skills on a project you like. - If possible, measure components before installing, do not trust your knowledge of color codes or nomenclature or pins configurations in the case of diodes and transistors. - When tinkering with digital circuits try to use only 5V level components, avoid 3.3V components. Of course you can use converters to interface but it's nice to avoid that complexity at the beginning.

Hope this helps.


Cool, thanks! :)


>but in the case of electronics I find it much more difficult to overcome the fear that I might actually physically fry something and need to buy a new one. Anyone have tips for that?

Set yourself a learning budget and accept that blowing things up is part of the experience. It's not terribly expensive to buy a large stock of basic components. Sellers like Banggood offer assortments of resistors, capacitors, diodes and transistors for a few bucks. Arduino Nano clones are about $2 each on Aliexpress, so buy half a dozen. The Aneng AN8008 multimeter is more than good enough for student use and costs less than $25; a Daniu DT832 is perfectly usable for basic measurements and costs about $5, so it's no tragedy if you blow it up. You can find an old analog oscilloscope on eBay for about $50.

If you're getting into repair, ask your local thrift stores for broken electronics or buy a job lot of cheap broken stuff on eBay. If you can't fix it, you can always scavenge it for components.


Thanks, yeah. Though it's not necessarily so much the money (at least for cheap components), but the hassle of (a) figuring out if things are actually broken or if you're doing it wrong, and (b) actually going through the trouble of getting new components. Nice thing about software is you can use the same equipment for a while :)


I wonder the same thing trying to learn a new language.

I notice the biggest difference between me and a child is that children don't care about messing up. Meanwhile I often have this worthless apprehension of "better not practice Spanish on these Spanish speakers, I might mess up and feel stupid."

I tried to learn Spanish like I learned how to program. Now I'm living proof that you can become good enough to read books in Spanish yet amaze people with your inability understand spoken Spanish.


> Now I'm living proof that you can become good enough to read books in Spanish yet amaze people with your inability understand spoken Spanish.

Two quick hacks to try.

1) Stop reading books in Spanish silently. Read them out loud. This will force your brain to create neural pathways between understanding, comprehending, and speaking.

2) Put in your earphones and walk down the street. Play something that is like a Spanish conversation podcast and try to mimic what they are saying. Doing it in public will help conquer the 'ego' that gets in the way of making mistakes in public and eventually with other people.


I suspect adults learn languages a lot faster than kids, when we spend the same amount of time being exposed & practicing.

All the polyglots say you have to be willing to mess up a lot and work to shed your fear of feeling stupid. In fact, try to seek it out because that's the primary way you get feedback & learn.


And it is the same with almost everything, including programming. If you are afraid to admit you don't know something you will spend much more time before you learn it. Sure, you are playing with your reputation - but in my experience it is better to have a reputation of a fast learner than the reputation of a know-it-all.


Right, I remember a Quora answer to the effect of: "If children pick up languages faster, it's just an artifact of how much more likely they are to be immersed in an environment of native speakers willing to put up with them and correct their errors; if you could get a group of native Spanish speakers to do the same to you as an adult, you'd pick it up quickly too."

(I've anecdotally heard stories of "gringos" picking up conversational Spanish just from working in the back of a restaurant with a Spanish-only staff.)


> I suspect adults learn languages a lot faster than kids, when we spend the same amount of time being exposed & practicing.

In linguistics, it's pretty well accepted that kids learn languages faster than adults for neurological reasons, with considerable research support: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Critical_period


Oh I'm sure that critical periods are legit, and I don't doubt that infants and very young kids are learning at a faster rate than adults.

There's just a lot more to learn during first language acquisition than during second language acquisition. It's possible for a child to learn faster than an adult in general, and for it to still take longer to learn a language to basic proficiency, because there's a lot more to learn the first time.

The article you linked even acknowledges that and confirms my premise from above: "Certainly, older learners of a second language rarely achieve the native-like fluency that younger learners display, despite often progressing faster than children in the initial stages."

The research support on second language acquisition seems rather mixed here to me. There's certainly some evidence that kids eventually learn more, but this article presents some evidence against, and the evidence here on time to proficiency vs amount of effort isn't exactly what I'd call considerable. Most of the discussion is on whether second language learners achieve perfection, not on how long or how much effort it takes to become a basic speaker.

Very little discussion on the learning environment difference between kids and adults. Kids get full immersion and years of constant feedback. Adults usually get a few classes or books, a few hours of practice a week, and are usually speaking bilingual while learning, etc. I'd like to see studies comparing apples to apples.


I'd suspect it's easier for children to learn unfamiliar spoken languages than adults (they don't have to un-learn certain patterns from a native language).

I'd postulate it's probably easier for trained adults to learn new programming languages as they're more familiar with structured syntax and the semantics involved, and are more likely to have exposure/experience with a similar language. Also, concepts from one programming language carry over to another, even if they're expressed differently.

I don't have any studies to back this up; it's just my gut-feel.


My experience is the opposite. I don't have to unlearn native patterns. I learn a different pattern, and switch to it. Because I understand grammar and the parts of speech as an adult, at a level beyond simply having copied it from people around me, I can understand foreign, completely different grammar, at an intellectual level.

When I speak (and learn) Japanese, my conscious understanding of Japanese grammar simply makes it easier. The same when I speak French. I don't unlearn anything; I learn different patterns, and I simply switch to them.

In fact, it's what you suggested about programming languages, but for spoken languages. In my experience, adults can learn foreign languages far faster than children can. Maybe it appears that children are better at it because they are completely immersed in the language they need to learn and have no other means of communication. If I spent 16 hours a day immersed in a foreign language, with people trying to communicate with me and no other way of communicating back, I reckon I'd pick it up pretty swiftly.


Interesting. I admittedly don't have much experience learning foreign languages; I did K-12 in the US and was only required to take 2 years of Spanish. I'd assumed from discussions with other students taking, for example German, that it'd be more difficult. Versus programming languages, I've learned, C, C++, C#, Java, Python and Perl (and I supposed a modicum of JS) as well as x86, x64, 68k, MIPS, z80 and Atmel AVR assembly. I've always had an easier time learning a new programming language/assembler than a foreign natural language. Maybe that's just me.


Spoken languages are a lot harder to learn than programming languages.

But think about how much faster you learned JS than the time it took to learn C (or whatever your first programming language was.)

Don't forget to account for the vast amount of learned information you get to leverage from your first language, even if you have to unlearn a few things or learn a few new things.

Even though JS is very different from C, learning JS was much, much faster for me than learning C was, because I already knew a whole lot about the way all languages work just from learning C.

I'm learning Icelandic right now, and it only took a few weeks of 30 minutes a day to cover some basic conversational skills, gather maybe 100 or so words of vocabulary, and get an introduction to the basic speech patterns & conjugation. It'll take a lot longer to be fluent, but children take years to get that far, because they're starting from scratch and don't have connections to build on. I see a ton of connections to German and English that kids wouldn't.

It's also hard to compare programming to high school Spanish, since it's easy for us to spend 10 hours a day programming, but in high school we topped out at like 3 hours a week of Spanish exposure, and most of that wasn't practicing very hard.

I moved to Mexico as a child (during my first grade year), and learned enough Spanish to go to school, play with the kids, etc. I feel like I'm picking up languages faster now than I did then.


YouTube anecdotes, but here is Gabriel Wyner: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iBMfg4WkKL8 describing his experience of learning nothing much linguistically in High School or College, but then joining immersion based courses at an adult and making significant progress in a few weeks.

and here: is Chris Lonsdale saying adults can learn useful amounts of spoken Chinese in 6 months, with immersion and being able to watch mouths closely and see how speakers move their moouths to pronounce things (IIRC): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d0yGdNEWdn0

and there's a bunch more; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-WLHr1_EVtQ and so on


You cannot spend the same amount of time, because a little kid basically has 60 hours in a day.


It's a different skill but I'm learning piano as an adult. I have a digital piano and headphones, and it's great — nobody like neighbors, roomates or people outside on the street hears so I can play around and learn without problem.

We can't really do the same with languages, but it's interesting! I definitely feel how I tense up if I have to practice openly.


I'm learning karate. It's entirely opposite your position in that I'm lined up with beginners of all ages, so I'm learning alongside 7/8 yo boys and girls (I'm middle aged); and often some parents watch the class.

It's difficult to be in the open like that - but it's a lesson in humility.

It has given me a great appreciation of my children who are also in the class (at higher grades), and been a fascinating lesson in learning and development. It's helped me in many ways - I'd recommend it.


I'm currently doing something similar and wanted to give 3 pieces of advice to anyone wanting to do similar:

1. Don't buy a 2 or 3 octave keyboard like I did.

2. Synthesia is great. Guitar hero for a midi keyboard.

3. musictheory.net is a great interactive way to learn some basics.

My learning is mainly geared towards producing for games, so I thought I could get away with a 25 key keyboard, but I regret it a lot.


> I notice the biggest difference between me and a child is that children don't care about messing up.

A physiological difference you wouldn't have noticed are that children will be making more neural connections than adults at that stage of their development.


But they have significantly less neural connections overall, and you already have whole sets of neural connections available to reuse at a very high level - there’s no evidence yet that the neural connections children are making are stronger or more flexible than the adult ones in your brain right now. In fact given how most humans become more intelligent as they age (compare a 20 year old to a 40 year old) it’s likely that the brain continues to improve.


Could it be that aging has to do more with the accumulation of “knowledge”, where knowledge literally means replacing perceptions with “I know”s and thus becoming more rigid and disengaged from the senses...

...and not so much as physical aging as the cause of these.

Maybe we are mostly surrounded by people who age without questioning culture around them, or their mind and body habits.

I’ve found that with age and certain practices I’ve become more available to learning, more available to retraining/rewiring of habits, and more responsive to change. My strong opinions are more loosely held and I constantly focus on letting go of any grasping that causes me suffering.

“Drop it while it’s hot” has a whole and new wonderful meaning. My body is aging but my experience of the world is becoming more colorful, more vibrant and more exciting.

My dad is close to 80 year old, an active surgeon, at the top of his field, actively publishing papers, teaching, seeing patients, driving to jobs in different cities, with yoga and tennis on a semi regular basis while writing a book and editing a magazine. Many of these require him using a desktop and laptop computers, he just got an android smartphone which I wished him luck with because it’s too complex for me to support.


I think you have to find a kind of patience. Going through your life psyching yourself up about how amazing and life changing this new experience is going to be doesn’t last. For most people the mid life crisis is the last time they try that.

All of the new stuff I’ve started has been on the cautiously optimistic end of the scale. This could be the best thing ever but it’ll take a long time for it to be so. Just show up until then.


Coming from the chess world, I suspect your hypothesis is correct. I've taught adults and children and all else being equal adults learn and improve vastly faster than children.

But the all else being equal part is the catch. Adults often don't put as much effort into the work as children and a big problem is preconceptions that people have difficulty letting go of.

I also consider myself some slight degree of proof of the hypothesis. I didn't even learn how the pieces moved until I was 17, which is ancient in the chess world, and didn't take it seriously until I was in my 20s. And now I have enough grandmaster scalps to create a.. err.. something that uses lots of scalps!


Teaching beginners? Sure, most little kids are immature and don't understand the big picture concepts of general strategy that adults already learned before they started studying chess. And adult many likely already had some chess experience.

But Progressing through to expert or world-class? History verifies the conventional wisdom that ages ~12-30 show the greatest gains.

And when you look over to things like language and music, the difference in learning ability is vast. Kids can become trilingual effortlessly, while adults almost never get close.


To compare apples to apples you need to look at a given sample that have engaged in the same amount of effort and compare it to another group that has engaged in the same amount of effort. For instance the media representation of the chess prodigy completely misses out that our 'prodigy' has been studying chess beyond full time for 6+ years. How does this compare to adults who study chess as a beyond full time job for 6 years? Well it's tough to say since almost nobody actually does this.

Laszlo Polgar's experiment is tangential but an interesting aside here at least on the notion of 'conventional wisdom'. Polgar wanted to perform an experiment on the nature of mastery of something (mathematics/music/chess/etc) being a matter of work rather than some natural talent as was, and remains the view of 'conventional wisdom.' After some consideration he decided to use chess, something he had no particular talent in, as his test bed -- and announced beforehand that he would create a master. He found a wife (also of no meaningful chess talent) willing to participate and they had a child which was their experiment subject. In fact the experiment was made doubling interesting by the fact that he had a girl. Then another. Then another. "Conventional wisdom verifies" that girls tend to do worse at chess than boys. Those children were Susan[1], Sofia[2], and Judit [3]. He created 2 grandmasters, and one international master. Judit becoming the 8th highest rated player in the world!

Language is another interesting example. I enjoy traveling and know many people that became fluent in languages as adults. And the vast majority tend to share one thing in common - they were forcefully immersed in the language. Cutting out the abstracts there - they tend to have wives or girlfriends that speak little to no english. There's no chicken or egg there, they invariably learned the language after moving in with the person. I expect you'll find the children that are genuinely trilingual (and not I took 4 years of spanish in school and can kind of speak it passably type 'fluent') will be made up heavily of children where multiple languages were spoken in their household - the same sort of 'forcible immersion.'

[1] - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Susan_Polgar

[2] - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sofia_Polgar

[3] - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judit_Polg%C3%A1r


The Polgar experiment had at least one major bias -- they were the Polgars' natural born children, not "average" people. Also, Polgar's own hypothesis was that it required to begin study by age 6. Has anyone tried taking a 30-yr-old adult, and funding a 20year intensive chess curriculum for them?


If a child tried to learn language the way adults do, they would be far more likely to fail.

The difference in circumstances is likely greater than the difference in brain plasticity past a few years old.


For what it's worth, the actual structure of the brain starts off with way too many neurons and connections and starts paring them down. Learning is creation, but it is also destruction. Removing useless connections is valuable. A lot of the paring down happens in your teens with the process reaching a stable state in the mid-20s.

This doesn't mean learning ceases past the point (clearly not). But it does mean that changing synaptic weights and forming new synapses comprise the bulk of learning rather than new neuronal projections and creating new neurons of which the later two become insignificant with small exceptions (such as the generation of new neurons in a small region called the SVZ and also in the hippocampus, a region important for memory though I don't know if the role of these new neurons is known in any great detail).

Adult learning necessarily uses restricted mechanisms compared with children and adolescents. It's still a general learning machine though, though rate of learning might suffer (I'm not familiar with that part of the field).


Tango you might be another fantastic exception to add to the small list of late starters who got to GM level such as John K. Shaw and Jonathan Hawkins.

However I suspect that everything else being equal children do have a higher skill ceiling because there are very few late achievers in chess.

An experiment would be needed, take a group of 10 year olds, 20 year olds and 30 year olds and immerse them in intensive 5 year course of study.

I would wager that the 10 year olds as a group would have progressed further.

Why do I say so? Because, it is incredibly hard as an adult to obtain the so called unconscious mastery in any field. (Ie what Gladwell alluded to in 'Blink'). It is the pattern recognition that's been alluded by many.

With kids this can happen, 'the jump' so to speak. With adults I've not seen it happen in almost 40 years of playing chess at a decent level(FM).

I remember it somehow clicking for me at 14 for chess. It is the level when you do not have to think and you can make a good move. It was the level when I realized I could keep up with IMs.

Of course you need both pattern recognition(GM-RAM) and the ability to calculate. Ability to calculate can be trained, but it is also part of talent/ability.

Among my kids and nephews only one has that ability.

Are you going to tell me that among your adult students all have the raw ability/potential to make master?


I'd absolutely love to see that experiment. It's something that I think would be applicable to so many other fields as well. But you'd also need to strictly control for everything. As Botvinnik said, chess cannot be taught - only learned. If the adults are just phoning it in, the result is of course preordained.

In my opinion, I think anybody (of at least 'normal' mental capacity) has the potential to make master. Will any of my adult students do so? Absolutely not. They want to improve at chess, but want to do so in a way akin to taking a pill. Like you obviously know there is an immense amount of work to improvement and chess improvement is extremely weird. For instance extensive tactics study are key for improvement, but it's not like you'll see it instantly reflected in your rating - and after some time of diligent work and effort, it's entirely possible that somebody's rating might have even decreased. Something I experienced, as well as most other stronger players I know, is the 'stair step.' You don't improve steadily and linearly, there's these weird huge jumps where it seems like somehow you wakeup one day and are just xxx points stronger.

People understandably expect proportional rewards to proportional work, but that's just not how chess improvement works. I also think this is how so many adults get trapped in opening study - there the rewards can be immediately visible, even if it's not really all that helpful to your overall improvement. Kids don't really think about these sort of things and often just enjoy learning about the game and solving the problems. But adults are generally doing it as a means to an end and have much more difficulty dealing with the nature of improving at the game. And it can also directly lead to self doubt in them as they use this as an indicator that they've plateaued, lack talent, or whatever else. And lacking confidence in chess is a great way to kill your results.


> I wonder how much of brain elasticity in as adults is just due to attitude

I wonder that too and do believe that it is largely about attitude. Part of it, however, is also wisdom. For example, as adults, experience has brought us to the point of realizing that a lot of what drives younger people is just buzz and bullshit. 99.9% of the things everyone claims are "THE NEXT BIG THING YOU MUST NOT MISS OUT ON!" end up being of no practical consequence whatsoever to life or society.


I think it's not just about attitude, but also about having learning as a habit.

I can't find it, but I recall an article in Science showing that Myelin production is increased when there is a continued demand for it (so Myelin production can be trained like a muscle to some degree). The higher-level interpretation was that since Myelin production is connected to brain elasticity and learning, that once you get over a initial bump of starting to pick up the habit of learning more Myelin would be produced and it would be easier to learn going forward.

Anecdotally I found that to be very true. It was always easier for me to pick up new things during the week when I kept my brain in a "learning state" on my off-days by reading books or having a stimulating discussion with friends. But who knows, that might just as well be a Placebo effect.

(Sorry for missing reference, and the unscientific jumping to conclusions)


This kind of relates to the “neural Darwinism” idea. Or “use it or lose it” as it relates to certain behaviors. I don’t know if it’s true but it’s a useful way to think about it.


I wonder how much attitude is controlled by brain elasticity? Seriously, most non molecular biological explanations with regards to brain function are just tautologies. Your brain doesn't work because you don't try hard enough. You can't try hard enough because your brain doesn't work. This is the subject matter of thousands of clickbait articles.


Fair point but I think people generally intuitively separate learning ability or speed and willingness to learn. I've met my share of determined idiots and passive geniuses, given mostly when I was in school. To me it seems like, while they're probably related, brain elasticity and openness aren't inextricably linked, such that one is directly responsible for the other


Totally anecdotal, but my grandpa is 90, and he made it a point to learn how to use facebook and youtube. (I saw him on Facebook the other day when I visited him.)

He wanted to be able to follow family and see everyone's pictures and whatnot.

He was always into learning tech and liked gadgets though. I remember in the early 90s he had a car phone. I thought it was the coolest thing ever, and he was the only person I knew with one.


>I wonder how much of brain elasticity in as adults is just due to attitude

It reminded me a quote (that I'll try to interpret/translate as best as I can): That's not you stop playing games as you get older, it is you get older when you stop playing games. I am a young person, but I live it, feel it as I age.


And how much of attitude is based on the genetics/physical state of the brain?

So many people can be taught that a growth mindset is all you really need to continue to improve at a skill, yet the distributions are still bell curves and people still plateau where they are at.


I think its due to a couple of things. 1. Free "Space"/"Threads" in our brain as kids we had a clean install of an os with only hunger and sleep to worry about. As adults we juggle with dozens of things in our mind. 2. Fear of failure. As kids we dont really care about what others think as we grow older we lose this wonderful ability :(


Is brain elasticity an objectively scientific thing? Can it be measured? It seems like an invention to fit observed mental rigidness with age.


Neuroplasticity refers to the brain's ability to transfer neurons across areas of grey matter. Essentially moving function.

It is observed in adults as well as children, but there is definite decay in that ability.

By 'observed', neuroplasticity has been observed at the microscopic level, as well as higher levels, such as brain remapping of function following injury.


Yes, it is. In mice we even know some enzymes responsible for this:

https://futurism.com/fountain-youth-effect-young-blood-old-m...


> Still, at 82 I imagine most people will start developing issues with memory so it probably isn't an easy feat

This is where you've made a presumption using your imagination.


Eh, you can have all the attitude you want, but I'm watching my mother wither away with dementia (she's 81). There's nothing attitude-wise that is involved there.

It's just luck whether you can still do coding at 40,50,60,70+. You WILL reach an age where you will not be mentally capable of doing all the things you want to do whether that is coding or driving a car. Maybe science and modern medicine can save us, but it's too late for my poor mother.


Out of curiosity, did she retire before the dementia or after? It's by no means scientific, but among all of the old people I know, the strongest predictor of dementia would be retiring. I haven't been able to find any studies on the relationship between stopping working and the onset of dementia, although it seems like working or keeping busy might somehow help stave it off.


Could pre-dementia cause people to be ineffective / uncomfortable at work, causing them to retire?


That's entirely possible. Maybe the old people who keep working keep working because they're not gradually becoming demented.




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