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  • Kathy Shimpock

A Stitch in Time Why Learning Something New is Essential

Like so many people, I have lots of ideas for projects.  One of the most unlikely one for me is sewing.  It’s not a matter of equipment or supplies. I have a garage full of fabric from my mother who was a master seamstress.  It was sewing itself that I disliked - all that picking out of tiny, misplaced stitches.  I only tried it once and I don’t have good memories of that experience.  It was my 8th grade home economics class in which I made a “granny dress” assisted by my mother. My mom was quite the perfectionist taskmaster and so after having to pick out the stitches time and again, I walked away from the machine.  I thought for good.

But here I was so many years later thinking of starting again. It was something I thought I “should” do with all that inherited fabric. Even though I had found a dress pattern I liked, I came up with excuse after excuse not to start.  Wouldn’t it be more fun to do something else?  Something that you like to do.  The truth was it was easier to do something I already knew how to do: reading, perhaps, or writing, or even painting a picture.  Anything except sewing.

I wish I could tell you how I was able to break through the resistance.  I really don’t know.  Perhaps it was because I took the sewing machine out and put it on the dining room table along with the pattern, fabric and all the other paraphernalia. I guess I just got tired of seeing it all there.  Its very presence wore me down. And so, one day, I begin. Armed with my handy dandy “how to sew” book and my (as advertised) “easy sew” pattern I began.  What little I had learned either from my 8th grade experience or by osmosis from watching my mother meant little now.  I had to learn everything all over again. To start, how to lay a pattern.  Should I place the pattern on the grain?  At the fold?  Then there is the stitching.  Thank, the goddess for thread that matches the fabric.  I told myself, “I’m not ripping out all my errant stitches no matter how much my mother is cursing me in heaven!”   I discovered that patterns can be as difficult to interpret as instructions for putting together furniture (especially those translated from another language). It felt at times like I needed to envision a three-dimensional process from a two-dimensional drawing in which the shaded areas meant something different in each illustration.

Each time I got stuck, there was a mental pause.   I could almost feel it. Once I dreamed of the solution at night.  Other times, I did it wrong initially, and had to try, try again. I also discovered that learning to sew was just like learning to play the piano.  There are a lot of clang, clang, clang sounds before you can ever make music. 

But more interesting than all I learned (and didn’t learn) about sewing was the mental process. After a while, when I stopped resisting the inevitable, my brain seemed to get locked-into the task.  It grasped on to the puzzle and didn’t want to let go no matter how frustrating it was.   I found I was working longer on the dress than I had planned in a day.  Even more curious was what happened when I completed the task. I felt a sort of euphoria.  My brain felt clearer and faster as I did other work.  It stayed that way for several days to a week. I certainly didn’t anticipate that high, but perhaps I should have.

All the research shows that we need to engage our mind as we get older, and I know that applies to me too as I’ve reached my 71st year. The standard recommendation is to learn something new.  I didn’t really think that applied to me.  After all, I was still teaching and reading and learning new things.  Yes, I was often learning new things but was I learning something new?   That was a very different question and it sent me in a direction my brain didn’t want me to go. I found my brain likes to do the things I already do.  Especially the ones I know how to do well.  Reading?  Yes, it loves to do that. It likes to write and do art projects even if they are very dissimilar.  I found my brain tends to resist doing something unfamiliar.

Dr. Daniel Amen writes, “If you actively engage your brain in retirement, it can be one of the best times of your life.  But never forget your brain is like a muscle.  You have to use it, or it will get smaller and smaller.  When you stop learning, your brain starts dying.” 

You might think if your brain was getting smaller that it would support your goals to exercise more, play a musical instrument or learn a new language.  That’s not how I’ve experienced it.  It seems instead to provide me with numerous excuses not to start or it tantalizes me with more familiar activities.  It’s the same way I feel when I force myself on to the elliptical machine and tell myself “Go on, you fool!  This torture keeps you alive!” All the while every cell in my body cries to get off.  Learning to sew forced the brain fog to clear as I built new neural pathways.

It did just what science claimed it would do too.  A study that was published in Psychological Science assigned adults ages 60-90 to one of two tasks. One was a complex (and mentally demanding) skill like digital photography or quilting, while the other was a simple mental exercise like doing a crossword puzzle.  In three months’ time (working about 15 hours a week), the group that learned the complex skill showed marked improvement in overall memory. The less demanding skill didn’t bring forth any significant benefits.

Denise Park at the University of Texas at Dallas reports, “It seems it is not enough to just get out and do something – it is important to get out and do something that is unfamiliar and mentally challenging and that provides broad stimulation mentally and socially.”

And if learning one new thing is good, learning three new things is even better. Researchers studied folks from 58-86 and challenged them to take three to five classes for three months putting in about 15 hours a week of mental effort.  At the end of 6 weeks, participants saw an increase in cognitive abilities to those found in people much younger. Psychologist, Rachel Wu says, “The participants in the intervention bridged a 30-year difference in cognitive abilities after just 6 weeks and maintained these abilities while learning multiple new skills.”

And that euphoria I experienced after learning to sew? I discovered that was a release of dopamine.  Dopamine can make learning joyful and also encourage you to repeat the experience.  So good-bye to doing only those things I already know how to do!

As children we were familiar with this process.  We knew it took time and perseverance to learn a skill.  When we really wanted to learn how to skate or ride a bike we put in lots of time and effort. But now so many years later, we think somehow that everything should come easy.  When it doesn’t, we choose to believe that we have no aptitude for the area. We just aren’t skilled or talented enough to learn to play the piano or speak French.  Or even worse perhaps we embody ageist beliefs that you just “can’t teach an old dog new tricks”! The truth is we have forgotten how to learn something new.  We’ve forgotten how to start over when we fall; how to preserve through skinned knees and elbows. We’ve forgotten how to keep trying.  Hopefully we still remember the joy of learning that new skill.  Just for a moment can you remember the first time you rode your bike without help?  I’m guessing you felt euphoric.  Freedom! You learned something new and were joyful!  You can be again.

Journal Questions:

  1. If you decided to challenge yourself to learn something new, what would that be?

  2. Is that task both complex and mentally demanding?

  3. Would you be willing to try three new tasks at a time?

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