Gary Marcus in The New Yorker:
For me, much of the past year revolved around discussions prompted by a book of mine that was published in January, called “Guitar Zero,” about the science of learning and my own adventures in learning guitar at the age of forty. The basic premise was that the scientific evidence for a widespread view called the “critical-period effect” was far weaker than widely supposed. The critical-period effect is the idea that you can’t do certain things—like learn a language, or learn an instrument—unless you start early in life. It’s a discouraging thought for anyone past adolescence. But, recently, the evidence for this idea had started to unwind.
…Learning a new skill can also have unexpected benefits. Recently, the neuroscientist Nina Kraus published a pile of new studies that show that learning about music can facilitate getting better at other things, like language skills and hearing in noisy places—and can do so in ways that last for decades. (Her first studies were with children; other studies are now in progress to see if the same holds true for lessons taken by adults). Music training can help the brain better decompose the elements of sound—in ways that Kraus was able to directly measure in the lab—and seems to improve working memory, too. And, in another recent study, a team of Canadian researchers found evidence that a mere twenty days of music lessons can lead to better scores on a test of verbal intelligence. Moreover, whether or not picking up a new skill makes you smarter, it can certainly make you happier. We can’t all be rock stars. But, as the cliché goes, the journey can be every bit as rewarding as the destination. A New Year’s resolution shouldn’t just be about becoming great at something. It should be about becoming a better or happier or more fulfilled person. Whether your dream is to play piano, cook steak sous-vide, or finally learn to speak French, the lesson from all this new research is clear: there is no better time than now to take on something new. Happy New Year!