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.

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.