The saying, ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’, is both really annoying and has had amazing longevity, thought to date back over 2,300 years to Aristotle in classical Greece. He compared human memory to a wax tablet, believing that at birth a child’s memory is pliable like warm wax, but, as she ages, her memory like cooling wax becomes too brittle to form distinct impressions. On the other hand how much weight should we put on the views of this guy who thought that women compared to men are “immature,” “deficient,” “deformed”; and even a bit “monstrous.”. 

Aristotle’s view that brain plasticity reduces dramatically with age was pretty much accepted until an increasing number of quite recent studies appeared to contradict it. Researchers at the Center for Vital Longevity in Texas suggest that if older people have the confidence to learn something new and meaningful, then they can do so successfully.  

Author Tom Vanderbilt, in his book Beginners: The Curious Power of Lifelong Learning, describes how he began learning chess as an adult. He considers the phrase ‘adult beginner’ patronising implying that you are learning something you should have mastered as a child. As adults it’s easy to rationalise all the reasons we shouldn’t waste our time learning something new, and I suspect most of those reasons are tied up with fear of being patronised and other embarrassments.

The thought that at some point in the future I might believe wrongly I’ve become a competent botanist is off-putting, but on the other hand, one of the huge advantages of being an adult learner is that I don’t care if I look silly. It is quite hard to be interested in plants without looking silly at least some of the time, as I spend quite a lot of time kneeling on pavements or lying down in fields with a hand lens pressed to my eye socket.

Whether I’ve been able to learn some new tricks will soon become evident. After getting level 3 in my Field Identification Skills Certificate (FISC) last September, I’ve been busy botanizing and learning plant identification. I’ve just entered for a second FISC in July. Assuming this goes ahead as planned, I’ll find out whether I’ve been going about my diy botanical learning in the right way.

[Pictured is the delightfully named Corky-fruited Water-dropwort which is just coming into flower up the road, if the housing estate contractors leave it alone]