Learning: The elixir of life
Being open to constantly learning new things and mastering new skills is the best way to stay youthful, creative, and realise the purpose of your incarnation on earth, says Jamuna Rangachari
None of us want to grow old and we keep looking for ways to delay the process of ageing, but the truth is that eternal youth has little to do with the body and more to do with our mind and spirit.
As long as the brain is sharp and agile and one is willing to constantly learn and evolve, one is young. But if the mind has become closed, fixed, and stagnated, one can be said to have aged much before one’s time, even if one is physically young. Examples abound of people who have put a cap on their learning and have chosen to stop their mental growth because they do not want to make anymore efforts. However, learning is an attitude of a curious and ever-evolving mind which is full of wonderment, excitement, and childlike enthusiasm for life.
According to NLP coach Nasreen Khan, the more people stick to the same old ways of doing and thinking, the more are their chances of contracting Alzheimer’s in their old age. Conversely, learning a new skill or adopting a new way of doing the same thing helps create new neural pathways in our brain, keeping it young, active, fit, and productive. A sound memory, a sharp focus, new knowledge, and good problem-solving skills keep one feeling empowered, motivated, and confident. Learning new things is a good way of keeping the brain engaged, active, and young, and the spirit renewed and energised.
Just like a physical fitness routine, we need to have a mental one too. For learning is a tonic for life. Many people were able to infuse fresh vigour in their lives simply because they chose to learn something new.
Mr Srinivasan (name changed), 70, an engineer from Bangalore, was diagnosed with arthritis and could hardly move his arms, especially his fingers. “Just don’t use your arms much,” the doctors advised him. He was a little depressed for a while. But then he decided to move on. He had always been fond of music but had never learnt to play an instrument. He took his arthritis as a challenge to learn an instrument. He bought a casio and diligently practised it, and today, after nearly two years, plays songs, ranging from film to classical numbers. “I never wanted to stop learning something new. Now God has blessed me with a skill which makes me understand music even more.”
Srinivasan has almost forgotten his arthritis because his mind is focussed on something which brings him joy. This reminds me of my late mother-in-law who suffered from many ailments but primarily arthritis. However, being musically inclined, she kept learning new songs to divert her mind from her pain. Another such person is Shoba Mathur from Mumbai. Shoba was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 71. She kept going for chemo but never gave up hope. By the grace of God and the efforts of her family, she was able to recover from it. Now, at the age of 76, she gives occasional talks, is very active online, and has two websites. She spends most of her time researching for the websites. She likes to dance, take part in cultural activities, and do craftwork too. This attitude has made her lead a wholesome life.
Another such wonderful story is that of 90-year-old Lorna Prendergast, who completed her Master’s degree in music and dementia in Melbourne in July 2019. Prendergast enrolled for the degree after watching an ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) science programme on music and dementia. She completed the course online from the Victorian town of Bairnsdale, overcoming technological hurdles that would challenge many others. She studied the effects of music therapy in nursing homes, including the delivery of personalised playlists using music technology.
“During my research, I found a number of studies where it was suggested that thirty minutes a day of listening to personal music was very productive. Using an iPod with a headphone has proved very effective both in nursing homes and home care. Recently, a headphone has become available where a memory card containing a personal playlist can be inserted into the headphone and does not need to be connected to an iPod,” she says. Music technology has changed a lot in the course of Prendergast’s life. In an interview with ABC Classic, she recalled a time when it was common to make your own music, “Many family homes had a piano. Most men carried a mouth organ in their pocket. The accordion and the violin were also popular, as were the guitar and the ukulele. In those days, people made their own music. It was only when the wireless hit the airwaves that people listened more to music rather than make their own.”
This is something even I have observed in my own family. Both my children are fond of music and even used to compose some numbers earlier. But now, after the Internet and technology boom, they only listen to music and hardly ever think of composing their own pieces. This makes me wonder what may have happened if the Internet had not invaded and taken over their lives, as there are both merits and demerits of so much technology everywhere.
The mystery of learning
The fact is that we are born to learn and keep learning new skills all the time. However, many people consider the brain a mystery. We rarely think about what intelligence is or how it works. We mostly believe that a person’s intelligence is predetermined at birth. Either you are a ‘maths person’ or not, and it stays that way for life. However, new research shows that the brain is more like a muscle—it changes and gets stronger when you use it. Scientists have been able to demonstrate how the brain grows and gets stronger when you learn. Everyone knows that when you lift weights, your muscles get bigger and stronger. A person who cannot lift 20 pounds when they start exercising can get strong enough to lift 100 pounds after working out for a considerable time.The muscles become larger and stronger with exercise. But when you stop exercising, the muscles shrink and you get weaker. That’s why people say, “You either use it or lose it.”
This is equally applicable to the brain.
Most people don’t know that when they practise and learn new things, parts of their brain change and get larger just like muscles. This is true even for adults. So, it’s not true that some people ‘just can’t learn.’ You can improve your abilities if you practice and use good strategies.
Can adults grow their brains?
Scientists have recently shown that adults can grow the parts of their brains that control abilities, like the ability to do maths or juggle. In one study, scientists found a group of adults who were not jugglers. They taught half of them how to practise juggling the right way. These people practised for a long time and got much better at juggling. The other half didn’t practise and didn’t get any better. Next, the scientists used a brain scanner to compare the brains of the two groups. They found that the people who learned how to juggle actually grew the parts of their brains that control juggling skills—the visual and motor areas. Their brains changed, so they actually had more ability. This was surprising because these people had said before the study that they couldn’t juggle, just like some people say they’re ‘not good at maths.’ But when they learned good strategies of practising and kept trying, they actually learnt and grew their brains.
This happens because learning causes permanent changes in the brain. The juggler’s brain cells grow larger and grow new connections between them. These new connections make the juggler’s brain stronger and smarter, just like a weightlifter’s toned muscles.
Similarly, people aren’t ‘smart’ or ‘dumb’ at maths. At first, no one can read or solve equations. But with practice, they can learn to do so. The more a person learns, the easier it gets to learn new things because their brain ‘muscles’ grow stronger. This is true even for adults who have struggled for a long time to learn something. People who don’t know this can miss out on the chance to grow a stronger brain. They may think that they can’t do it or that it’s too hard. It does take work to learn, just like becoming stronger physically or becoming a better juggler does. Sometimes, it even hurts. When you find yourself getting better and stronger, you realise that all the work was worth it.
The formula for learning
The formula for growing one’s brain is Effort + Good strategies + Help from others.
Learning to juggle is a lot like getting better at maths. When people learn and practise new ways of doing algebra or statistics, they can grow their brains even if they haven’t done well in maths in the past. Strengthening the ‘maths’ part of your brain usually happens when you try hard at challenging maths problems. To grow your brain, you need to learn skills that let you use your brain in a smarter way. If you use a bad strategy, you may not learn even if you try hard. A few people study maths by solving the same set of easy problems and skipping the hard ones or just re-reading the textbook because it feels easier. When the time comes to do the test, they don’t do well because they didn’t work on the problems that stretched their brains and taught them new things. When this happens, they may even say “I’m just not smart at maths.”
The truth is that everyone can become smart at maths if they practise it the right way. If a weightlifter watches other people exercise all day, would he get stronger? If someone tried to learn to juggle by just reading a book on juggling, would they learn? We have to practise the right way, and usually, that means the hard way, to get better at something. In fact, scientists have found that the brain grows more when we learn something new and less when we practise things we already know. This means that it’s not just how much time and effort we put into studying maths but whether, when we study, we learn something new and hard to master. To do that, we usually need to apply the right strategies. Luckily, strategies are easy to learn if we get help.
Pulkit Sharma, an author and psychologist from Puducherry, says, “Learning should never stop at any age or stage of life and one must continue to learn till one’s last breath. When we learn something new, the curiosity of opening up to that entity fills us with life, adding vibrancy to our otherwise monotonous life. As we achieve perfection in the new activity, our self-esteem gets boosted and we feel very positive about ourselves. These beneficent emotions help us in combating our negative thoughts and feelings and be at peace with ourselves.”
Recalling an incident he says, “A woman who was reeling under severe depression and anxiety approached me for help. Apart from the routine psychological treatment, I encouraged her to pursue an unfulfilled dream. She wanted to learn singing as a child, but her parents considered it a waste of time and discouraged her. At 63, she finally made up her mind to learn vocal music and engaged a teacher. She was pleasantly surprised that ageing had not spoiled her vocal cords and that her mind was able to remember all the lessons perfectly. As she acquired proficiency in vocal music, her anxiety and depression vanished, and she began to feel extremely confident as a person. After some time, she started singing devotional music and ghazals in small gatherings, and the applause from the listeners made her pick it up as a career.”
This fact is confirmed by Anil Bhatnagar, corporate trainer, author, columnist, reiki teacher, and motivational speaker from Delhi. He says, “As per the principles of neuroscience, consciousness drops away from any activity where it is not required. We are most attentive when we are experiencing something new, even if it is the challenge of learning a new skill. Doing so necessitates the formation of new neural pathways and, sometimes, even the birth of new neurons. This keeps our brain from degenerating, getting old and dying out, and retains its agility. This is so because what we don’t use, we lose. Spirituality is more about being curious, asking questions, opening new doors, learning new skills, and finding more meaning than seeking validation for our beliefs or staying in our comfort zones. The more consciously awake we are, the more we get closer to the sacred. And conscious awareness is born when we necessitate it by doing or learning something new.”
Recalling the memories of his college days, he says, “I had a friend who had never played a musical instrument before, but he learnt it on his own and went on to win several awards in the five years we were at IIT—even the best musician award!”
One of his uncles began to learn how to drive a car in his fifties and drove it until his final days at the age of 80 plus. “We all need to keep learning. Look at Amitabh Bachchan who keeps reinventing himself even though he is ageing physically,” Anil emphasises.
Sadly, in the area of technical innovation, which comes with learning and experimenting, all the time we lag behind many nations. Here, I often remember the movie 3 Idiots where the protagonist asks the principal why Indians have not produced any innovative products but only repeat what has been taught to them in class. “We are not robots but human beings,” he says, much to the chagrin of the principal. This, unfortunately, is true of most colleges in India. Innovation is not encouraged, and students are told to follow the old route.
A shining example
This is where people like Prashant Gade from Madhya Pradesh have led the way and shown what learning is all about. An innovator at heart, he was always ready to take risks, all to fulfil his dream. “I knew what I did not want to do, and that is the most important thing. From there, I eventually figured my path to success,” says the 27-year-old entrepreneur, who dropped out of college twice to pursue his desired path. Prashant had always dreamed of becoming an engineer and creating innovative devices that could have a social impact. So when he finally enrolled in an electronic engineering course, it was a dream come true.
However, his high spirits were short-lived. “My idea of education was very different from the reality over there. Every time I would approach a professor with a new idea, he would first ask me about my grades. The world there was more inclined towards grades and rote-learning than real, practical education. I could not align myself with this attitude that discouraged creative thinking. It was a huge let-down, and I felt like my bubble had just been burst!” he shares.
Following this disappointing experience, he dropped out of college in the final year in the pursuit of real experience and learning. “I was looking for a job, when I came across a post on Facebook about a robotics course. My long-term interest in the subject piqued my curiosity, and I decided to go for it,” says Prashant, who enrolled for the six-month FAB training course in Pune. It was a distance learning course, being conducted under the aegis of the Center for Bits and Atoms of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
He had to complete a project to graduate from the course. While searching for inspiration, he came across the story of Nicolas Huchet, a bionic hand-maker, who, after losing his hand in an accident, made himself a bionic arm. “I was inspired by his work and began creating a prototype. Moreover, while in Pune, I had come across a seven-year-old girl who was born without arms. I felt very moved by her condition and wanted to help her as well as many others in a similar condition,” he shares.
Prashant’s device was far from ready, so he decided to gift the little girl prosthetic arms. But he was shocked when he found out the cost! Firms not only in India, but also in China, USA, and Europe charged approximately Rs. 24,000,00/- for two arms. “Plus, being a kid, she would have to get the arm changed every two years as she grew older. How could a person afford that kind of expenditure?” he exclaims.
This pertinent question pushed him to create an affordable and more effective alternative. “Research revealed that every year, over 40,000 people in India lose their upper arms, and 85 percent of them continue to live without any solution, as the majority of them come from economically underprivileged sections. This gave me an idea about the potential of my innovation and how it can impact people in and beyond the country,” he adds.
Just 23 at the time, he began his quest to perfect a low-cost semi-bionic arm. He wanted to dedicate himself to finding a solution and use it for social good. But resistance towards his plan on grounds of practicality continued to come in his way. “Many people said that I was stupid to throw off a comfortable life that engineering promised. My father advised me to work for myself first before working for others and had me enrolled in another computer science course. But I was not going to let go. I continued and tried getting funds through various avenues. Although I did not get any at first, my idea impressed the technical secretary of Jaipur Foot, who soon gave me a seed grant to design seven such hands,” he says.
Overwhelmed, Prashant took a photograph of the cheque and sent it to his father. Working in a new city had its challenges. He had to pay for his rent, food, travel, and other expenses. As money began to evaporate, he had to prioritise shelter over meals, eating just once a day. “Those were difficult times. I would just drink water and continue to work on my device, without letting myself be distracted. I continued to pursue funds through various online campaigns and videos,” he shares.
Soon, his hard work found recognition in the USA, where a retired professor reached out to support him in 2016. “I was invited to the USA to deliver a lecture about my project. They were so happy and supportive that they gifted me ten machines to expedite the work,” adds Prashant.
At present, Prashant Gade’s invention, Inali Arms, is India’s most affordable bionic arm for the differently-abled, priced at Rs. 50,000/- only! Over the last two years, over 700 arms have been designed and given for free, while nearly 300 have been sold across the country. He knows there are many who need this desperately and wishes to ensure that he reaches out to as many people as possible. One of the major landmarks in his journey was when his invention was eventually tried and appreciated by his inspiration, Nicolas Huchet. With Inali Arms being just a beginning, Prashant wants to expand further with affordable prosthetic lower limbs and other body implants, making the future of India’s healthcare accessible to all.
There are many engineers around us, but those who never stop learning leave a mark of their own. This is how trendsetters are born. Life is the best school of all, and when we stop learning, we stop growing.
We must realise that the more we make an organ work, the better it would function. Most of us have a physical fitness routine but do not exercise the mind at all. It would truly help if we focus on both as, without an active mind, we would not be able to find solutions to life’s challenges. In this area, I always remember my late mother-in-law, who combatted all kinds of challenges by learning and relearning new things all the time. In fact, she was a motivation for the entire extended family as a learner who never ceased to keep learning and growing.
Let us all then pledge to keep learning as long as we are alive. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”
Tips to keep learning and growing
Some suggestions I would like to share:
• Cultivate a new hobby: It does not matter if we are good or bad at it. We only need to please ourselves.
• Learn a new language: Languages always open new worlds for us. This is definitely worth pursuing. In a country like India, it is easily possible as even our neighbour could be from a different state and would love to teach us.
• Play games like scrabble or solve puzzles: This is definitely an interesting way to spend our time.
• Share your experience with others, and be open to learning from them too: This not just improves our learning ability but also fosters bonds.
• Study along with youngsters in your vicinity: This would not just exercise our brain but also make us feel younger
• Visualise yourself as a student of life all the time: This will make us feel younger and look forward to each new day as it unfolds.
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