From this weekend's Wall Street Journal.
Guitar Tricks for a Middle-Aged Dog
Is mastering music and languages just for the young? Not if you know how to teach older brains
By GARY MARCUS
Can old dogs learn new tricks? Developmental psychologists have long said no. The so-called "critical periods" theory of learning says that if you want to learn something, start early in life. If that were true, there would be little point in adults trying to acquire new skills—and truckloads of New Year's resolutions would never stand a chance.
But the evidence for this theory has begun to crumble, offering some hope to those of us who dream of self-improvement. With languages, for example, it turns out that the decline is gradual; the window certainly doesn't slam shut the moment that puberty begins. Some adults even manage to learn to speak second languages like a native.
Two crucial tips: Take baby steps and always target your weakest skills.
For years, the strongest evidence for youth as a once-in-a-lifetime period of learning seemed to come from animals. Take barn owls. Shortly after hatching, owl chicks calibrate their eyes with their ears. In a classic study, the Stanford biologist Eric Knudsen put prisms in front of owls' eyes, disrupting their normal capacity to link what they saw with what they heard. Young owls easily learned to compensate for the distortion, whereas old owls could not.
Or so it appeared. Mr. Knudsen later discovered that adult owls aren't hopeless after all, just slower. A baby owl can adapt to 23 degrees of distortion in just a few days; an adult can't. But adults can manage just fine if the job is broken down into smaller chunks: a few weeks at 6 degrees, another few weeks at 11 degrees and so on.
If adults take things bit by bit, adult owl-style, a whole new world of possibility begins to emerge.
My own dream had always been to learn a musical instrument, but every attempt, from grade school onward, had ended in failure. A few summers ago, at the age of 38, I decided to take one last shot.
To my surprise, there was scarcely any scientific literature on whether adults could really pick up an instrument late in life. The problem wasn't a lack of scientific interest in adult musical education. It was a lack of subjects.
To learn a musical instrument, you need to put in a lot of work—10,000 hours is a number that is often cited—and to do a proper study, you'd need a reasonably large sample of adult novices with sufficient commitment. Nobody had studied the outcomes of adults who put in 10,000 hours because so few adults were willing and able to invest that kind of time.
At that moment, I decided to become my own guinea pig.
From the outset, I knew that my only hope was total immersion. I wasn't going to become musical by playing for a few minutes every other week. My chosen instrument, the guitar, became my constant companion. When I began, I was awful; my wife described me as "cute, but tuneless." One expert I consulted suggested that I might suffer from a condition known as congenital arrhythmia, which was a fancy of way saying that I couldn't even tap my feet in time with a metronome.
At first, progress came slowly. But eventually I found a book—David Mead's "Crash Course: Acoustic Guitar"—that broke things down into the tiny steps that adults like me need. I kept plugging away. I took lessons, bought a travel guitar and practiced every day, even when I was on the road; 20 minutes here, an hour there, but something every day.
Rather than just practicing what was fun, I made sure always to work on my weakest skills. In keeping with this strategy, known as deliberate practice, I bought a drum machine and finally conquered (or at least came to terms with) my oldest nemesis, rhythm.
After practicing for just over a year, I finally had a breakthrough. One of my teachers, the music producer Roger Greenawalt, dropped me an email. "You had a breakthrough yesterday," he wrote. I wasn't headed to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But, as he put it: "That was really music you were playing."
Picking up a musical instrument, a foreign language or some other complex new skill poses a challenge for anyone. But here are some things I learned about learning later in life that helped me get through.
First, and most important, take small steps and don't expect overnight success. It's not realistic to expect to develop professional-level skills instantaneously. Whether you want to paint, cook, pick up a sport or learn anything else, your brain will need a heavy dose of rewiring.
Musical instruments, for example, require the brain to coordinate eyes, ears and hands (in some cases, feet as well). Most of us know enough to make allowances when we hear a child play at their first recital, or paint their first painting, but we forget to cut ourselves the same slack. One reason that children sometimes outperform adults is that they don't worry nearly as much about how good they are and how they look; they just get to it.
Also, remember the folk wisdom of generations: Practice every day, no matter what. Because you're taking small steps, you need to take a lot of them. Learning a skill depends on building new memories, and studies show that we learn new information most efficiently if we spread our practice out rather than trying to cram it all into a short period (like before a test).
And practice strategically, always targeting your weakest skills. Studies show that with everything from chess to typing to soccer to music, deliberate practice aimed at remedying weaknesses is a better predictor of expertise than raw number of hours.
You're more likely to practice every day if you make it more fun by varying your regimen. When you get stuck, don't keep crashing into the same wall—try something different. In learning to play the guitar, I found it helpful to practice one day with a metronome, another with the drum machine and another with a "backing track." The variation got my brain's dopamine flowing, eliciting the sorts of psychological rewards that kept me motivated.
It's also crucial to find a teacher who understands how you learn. The best guitarist in town may have once jammed with Carlos Santana, but that doesn't mean he can explain what you need to know, in terms you will understand.
Finally, don't think that you have to be a professional to enjoy doing something. For me, the biggest discovery in learning to play guitar was the joy of making my own music. Once I learned how easy it was to create melodies simply by shuffling five notes, I knew that I would never want to stop making music, no matter how many baby steps it took.
—Mr. Marcus is a professor of psychology at New York University. His new book, "Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning," will be published in January by Penguin.