Can you teach an ‘old dog’ new tricks?

We are often told that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”. So it’s easy to forget that many famous artists, writers and inventors found a second bloom of creativity later in life. Leonardo da Vinci, for instance, only began his ground-breaking studies of the human anatomy in his mid-50s; Picasso abandoned canvas for ceramic artwork when he was late 60s, and the Booker Prize-winning novelist Penelope Fitzgerald only published her first novel at the age of 62.

I’ve just published an article for BBC Future examining the “old dogs, new tricks” myth. According to the latest research, confidence may be one of the biggest barriers. We hear so much about the cognitive decline that comes with age, that some people may simply lose faith in their brain’s capacity for learning, and instead begin to lean on “cognitive crutches” in place of their memory. When driving, for instane, they may rely on GPS rather than learning the route. When cooking, they may always use a recipe book. Eventually, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. On the plus side, you can retrieve that lost fertility by deliberately stretching your mind.

You can read the full piece here: I’d love to hear your thoughts on the research and your own experiences.

Misology: the hatred of reason and argument

In Plato’s Phaedo, the great philosopher Socrates has been sentenced to death for “corrupting” the youth of Athens. As he awaits his execution, he begins to discuss  the afterlife with his students: Socrates believes the soul is immortal, while his students are sceptical. Arguments fly backwards and forwards, and it soon seems like they will never reach an agreement, when Socrates offers a warning.

“What we must beware of,” he said, “is becoming ‘misologists‘, hating arguments in the way ‘misanthropists’ hate their fellow men.

He goes on to argue that a hatred of people, and a hatred of reason, arise much the same way.

Misanthropy creeps in as a result of placing too much trust in someone without having the knowledge required: we suppose the person to be completely genuine, sound and trustworth, only to find a bit later that he’s bad an untrustworthy, and then it happens again with someone else; when we’ve experienced the same thing many times over, and especially when it’s with those we’d have supposed our nearest and dearest, we get fed up with making so many mistakes and so end up hating everyone and supposing no one to be sound in any respect.

Similarly, we may sometimes find that our cherished beliefs were baseless, without evidence: this is an inevitable consequence of thinking and learning. The rational behaviour would be to update our knowledge and learn from our mistakes. But the misologist instead begins to distrust everything – even the true and verifiable facts that appear before his eyes.

Wouldn’t it be quite a pitiable thing if there really were some true and stable argument, and yet because a person mixed with the sorts of arguments that now seem true, now false, he failed to blame himself, and his own lack of expertise, and instead eased his distress by happily shifting the blame from himself to his arguments, thus living out the rest of his life not only hating and abusing arguments but deprived of the truth of things and of knowledge about them?

Although recent scientific research hasn’t explicitly examined “misology”, Socrates’s term perfectly describes the growing distrust of expert judgement and reasoned debate. The sentiment is perhaps best encapsulated in Michael Gove’s statement that the people of Britain “have had enough of experts from organisations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong.” This isn’t an isolated phenomenon: as The Atlantic recently reported, trust in various institutions such as the government, the media, or NGOs, has consistently declined over the last couple of years.

I especially like Socrates’ definition of misology since it helps us to understand his “intellectual humility”. By declaring that “I am wise because I know I know nothing”, he wasn’t claiming that we should reject all expert judgement (like Gove). Instead, he was arguing that we should learn to question and update our own beliefs in the face of new evidence – to keep a healthy balance between scepticism and open-mindedness. As I’ll be discussing in my book The Intelligence Trap, robust psychological evidence has demonstrated a multitude of benefits to this mindset.

Socrates points out “there’s nothing worse that can happen to anyone than coming to hate arguments”, since it eliminates any chance of living a rational life. If Plato’s account is correct, he was willing to die rather than be forced to foresake that philosophy.

The Intelligence Trap

Exciting news! I’m writing a book, called The Intelligence Trap – Why Smart People Make Stupid Mistakes, and How to Avoid Them. It will be published by Hodder and Stoughton in the UK, and my agent is currently negotiating the foreign rights in various territories.

Needless to say, I’m thrilled. Ever since I first took an IQ test to attend secondary school, I’ve been fascinated by the ways we assess cognitive ability, and that interest has only grown since I became a science writer. Psychologists and neuroscientists are now finding many skills and thinking styles that have been neglected by our old definitions of intelligence, but which turn out to be crucial for personal and professional success. Crucially, these skills can all be nurtured and cultivated – whatever our IQs, we can all think a bit more wisely.

Combining analyses of historical events, personal narratives, and philosophy, I’ll be show-casing this new discipline – sometimes called “evidence-based wisdom” – and exploring the ways that it can be applied by individuals, businesses and whole societies.  These discoveries have already transformed my understanding of my own thinking, attitudes and behaviour – and I couldn’t be more excited about this opportunity to bring them to a popular audience.

Stay-tuned for future updates! In the meantime, you can check out more details on The Bookseller’s website and you can read the BBC article that first set me on this path.

UPDATE (23/03/2017): We’ve just sold the rights in Brazil (Sextante) and Italy (Ponte Alle Grazie)!

The psychological study to cure shyness

A few years ago, one of my friends happened to mention that she had attended the same party as a well-known actress. “She was so arrogant,” my friend told me afterwards. “She just stood in the corner, talking to no one.”

So a few days later, I was surprised to read a newspaper interview with the same actress, who lamented how awkward she had felt at the very same party. Making small talk to strangers, she claimed, left her “paralysed with shyness”. She had to run out of the room after just 10 minutes. Clearly even the talented and famous can feel awkward and tongue-tied from time to time.

The story came to mind when I interviewed the cultural historian Joe Moran about his new book Shrinking Violets – A Field-Guide to Shyness. As Moran shows, many prominent public figures – from Charles Darwin and Agatha Christie to Morrissey – have battled social anxiety, and it is often difficult to find a logic in that mess of feelings.

Moran offers a particularly charming story about Francoise Hardy (pictured above) and Nick Drake, who met for tea to discuss their songwriting. Apparently they were both so nervous of the meeting, they barely raised their eyes from their cups. Taking to the public stage may seem foolish if you are naturally timid and reserved, but Moran points out that “maskenfreiheit” (literally, the liberty that comes with wearing a mask) may release your inhibitions while performing, only for the awkwardness to return once the mask slips and you return to everyday life.

I’ve suffered severe shyness over the years (as I’ve written about here) and but I found that one particular study, from 2000, helps to put those feelings in perspective. The team, led by Thomas Gilovich, were examining the “spotlight effect” (the feeling that everyone is watching us) and asked some students to wander through a crowded room wearing an embarrassingly unfashionable Barry Manilow t-shirt. The researchers found that the participants vastly over-estimated how many people would have judged their fashion faux-pas; in fact, only 25% of the onlookers questioned had recognised Manilow’s face.

Gilovoch then placed their participants in groups to discuss a thorny political issue, and afterwards they had to note down the 5 best and worst things they had said during the conversation, and whether they thought others had noticed. Again, they assumed that the others were paying far more attention to them –  both good and bad – than they actually were.

Shyness often comes from the fear that other people are watching your every move – and the more conscious you become of their eyes, the harder it becomes to behave naturally. But the harsh truth is that unless you happen to be a famous film star, you are probably the last thing on their minds. And depending on how you feel about yourself, that fact is either depressing or deeply reassuring.


I’m David Robson, a science journalist based in London, UK. I spend most of the week commissioning, editing and writing in-depth feature articles about medicine, psychology and neuroscience for the BBC Future – a site that promises to “make you smarter everyday”. It gives me the freedom to explore cutting-edge research and to discuss some mind-blowing ideas with some of the world’s most inspiring scientists, and to meet people with some truly extraordinary (and sometimes heart-breaking) experiences.

Over the course of the day, I mull over many new ideas and potential stories – and inevitably, not all of them are suited to the BBC’s audience. This blog is a home for those musings. It may not be as polished as my professional writing, but I hope that you will find it entertaining and informative; I hope you might also get to know me a bit better, personally, as I explore the stories behind the stories.

I’m always interested to hear feedback, so please do get in touch with your thoughts or queries. I’d also be interested if you have any scientific questions that you’d like me to research and answer.