Learning about ourselves

Learning about ourselves

By James Cully

There is a dream I dream regularly enough to recreate at will. It involves my leaving cert maths teacher, an assortment of secondary school colleagues and I. In this dream I have the realisation that I have underestimated the difficulty of the up coming exams. I normally wake up around here, after being asked a question in class or hearing a classmate rattle off something surreal about the true meaning of x’s and y’s. When I wake I am gripped momentarily by sheer panic. This panic is a feeling akin to that which Pincher Martin experiences in the eponymous novel by William Golding, or the fate assigned to Caractacus Potts and Truly Scrumptious in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Stranded, surrounded by only the sea!


This feeling of panic/unpreparedness/dread is not unique to my second-level education, rather it seems to reoccur whenever I am faced with a new challenging cognitive task. My first instinct is to flee. During my psychology degree when faced with exams I flailed wildly, praying for them to be over once and for all. To stop the endless cramming and feeling like there is an absolute separation between my head and the rest of the world, that I am completely and utterly trapped in a learning centre hardwired to fail. Since starting the PhD and negotiating the travails of progress reviews and early career presentations I have felt the familiar yearning for that light at the end of the tunnel, to be finished! Retirement will be great! I will relax; no more challenging myself to learn, no more staring vacantly at something I do not yet understand in order to try and learn by permeation, just willing the knowledge to enter my head.

But there is a method to all this madness of learning, and research has shown that the longer we do it for, the better it is for our brains. This is explained by the theory of cognitive reserve, which postulates that individual susceptibility to age-related neurodegeneration is impacted by the physical differences in people’s brains and also by how these brains operate. Education and lifestyle are two means by which it is hypothesised that individual differences in cognitive reserve emerge over the lifetime (Stern, 2013). The theory of cognitive reserve explains that as we age and the brain suffers from neurodegeneration two models of cognitive reserve effect how you continue to function cognitively. These models are not independent of each other (Barulli & Stern, 2013). The hardware model of cognitive reserve focuses on the physical nature of the brain and suggests that a denser and heavier brain has a higher threshold of damage it can sustain before your level of functioning is impacted. The software model of reserve focuses on what remains of the brain when neurodegeneration is experienced, suggesting that individuals higher in cognitive reserve have brains that require less activation of the brain in order to complete a task and thus are able to function competently even in light of neurodegeneration. Compensation by means of activation of other parts of the brain to complete a task is another means by which the software model of brain reserve explains how individuals differ in responding to age-related neurodegeneration.

Learning and education are synonymous with youth, mainly due to the formal school system. It is something instilled in the majority of young people; that learning and challenging yourself is imperative to success in life. It is a belief that continually allows (forces) one to again face the unknown of learning a new skill, or applying to a course in University, to take to the seas of learning! While the theory of cognitive reserve would argue that such learning should continue throughout life, stereotypes embedded in society that support a cultural bias towards youth suggests that older adults are not well equipped to learn, that we are on a fixed path to senility (Nelson, 2011). An extension of this is that as we get older we are exposed to less new learning opportunities. Perceptions of the ageing process may be a reason for this. A recent study I carried out found that older adults who had a more negative perception of ageing, such as that you do not get wiser as you age, or that you feel your age in everything you do, led to less engagement in cognitively engaging activities such as reading novels. This was a survey-design study, and so it is not clear whether a person’s perception of ageing led to less time spent in cognitive activities, or vice versa. This has led to the design of a study about to begin which focuses on how long adults over the age of 50 will spend engaged in difficult cognitive activities, and whether this is predicted by how they feel about ageing. The purpose of this study is to attempt to identify clear indicators as to why older adults may be less inclined or even afraid to learn new skills, such as the use of a computer or whatever new life changing invention awaits current younger generations as we age. Learning is a leap of faith, one that shouldn’t be bound to your age.






Barulli, D., & Stern, Y. (2013). Efficiency, capacity, compensation, maintenance, plasticity: emerging concepts in cognitive reserve. Trends in cognitive sciences17(10), 502-509.


Nelson, Todd D. “Ageism: The strange case of prejudice against the older you.” Disability and aging discrimination. Springer New York, 2011. 37-47.


Stern, Y. (2013). Cognitive reserve: implications for assessment and intervention. Folia Phoniatrica et Logopaedica65(2), 49-54.