If you stop learning, you start dying. Learning something new is key not just for growth, but for survival. Let’s learn why.
If you stop learning, you start dying. Learning something new is key not just for growth, but for survival.
Image credit: Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

If you stop learning, you start dying. Learning something new is key not just for growth, but for survival. Let’s learn why.

When was the last time you truly learnt learned something new?

My Commonwealth upbringing keeps wanting to use the term ‘learnt’ but my location-based spell-check software (in California) keeps correcting it to ‘learned‘. I guess I haven’t learned to use the right term yet, though I’ve been here for more years than I care to count. And that, in essence, is really what this essay is about – learning something new.

Brain Fog or something more serious

A few years ago, after a rather harsh bout of medication to treat an illness, I noticed some lingering brain-fog. Around this time, coincidentally an older family member was exhibiting symptoms of dementia.

Panicking, I did what one obviously does under such serious circumstances. I anxiously consulted with Dr. Google. I ended up even more agitated than I started with, but not for the reasons you might think.

Dr.Google, for once, did calm me down regarding my brain fog fears – that it was likely a residual effect of the medication and not early-onset dementia. But what got me in a pickle, were these other facts that I learned online about preserving brain function.

Long story short, I realized if I didn’t make some key lifestyle changes, I was hurtling down the path of getting to the place I was trying so desperately to avoid. Yikes!

The first major key change needed was to cultivate the habit of learning something new every day. Why?

First, we need some to understand some brain science.

Learning – Brain Science

The human brain has many neurons (nerve cells) and I don’t use the term ‘many’ lightly here – about 85 billion of them. Neurons connect with other neurons by passing electrical and chemical signals, through connections called synapses. These synapses are rapidly formed when we are born until about age 2. Eventually, especially in adolescence, there is a pruning system (synaptic pruning) that gets underway to get rid of ‘unnecessary’ connections.

Nature, thus bestows on us, as an adequately functioning (???) brain. These neurons/synapses interpret chemical and electrical signals causing them to fire and wire together. Such a functionally connected network of neurons is what we refer to as the brain’s Information highway or neural network.

It helps to think of the brain as a buzzing metropolis. The more highways into and out of it, the less likely there will be a problem in an emergency. You can route traffic in many different ways. However, if there is a lack of enough infrastructure then it’s possible to end up with a number of undeveloped, rusty remote areas.

For the sake of efficiency, unused brain circuits simply fade away while frequently used ones are strengthened. This matters a lot, especially as we age from youth into adulthood and older.

All our thoughts, feelings, dreams, and hopes are impacted by the quality of the information highways in our brain and its connected neurons.

The least we can do, therefore, is to take care to grow or at least preserve what nature gave us. Learning something new helps us in this regard.

To understand how, we need to be aware of these two major fields of research in neuroscience.


There is a prevalent theory that humans are born with a certain number of neurons and that it’s not possible, as adults, to create more neurons. I like to think of this as ‘you get what you get and you don’t throw a fit’.

Recent research is challenging this paradigm. We don’t know yet if neurogenesis i.e. forming new neurons in the brain is possible in the adult brain. We’ll leave that to the brain scientists to figure out.

That said, it would indeed be great if they discovered we could grow neurons. That would lead to game-changing treatments for people with debilitating illnesses such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s.  Additionally, it would be like a lazy rich person’s solution to the problem – if you haven’t taken care of your neurons throughout your life, you may simply be able to replace them with new ones. Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?


Unlike Neurogenesis, here the brain reorganizes itself by forming new connections. This rewiring of the brain i.e. adding more synaptic connections between neurons is referred to as Neuroplasticity.

In contrast to the rich person’s solution to the problem, neuroplasticity is a working-class solution. You’ve got to take care of what you have and mend and repair neurons as you go because you don’t have the money or resources to get new ones.

The better news, though, is that Neuroplasticity is proven to work and there are tools and techniques that we can use to develop brain plasticity.

So, what do we learn from brain science?

If your thoughts, feelings, hopes and dreams are all taken away, what defines YOU then?

This is why the cliche ‘Stop learning, Stop growing’ rings so true.

Since our very identity is dependent on how our brain is wired, we have to look for ways to strengthen the wires and rewire as needed (neuroplasticity).

How? Learning something new is a major trigger for neuroplasticity. Other proven factors include physical exercise, intermittent fasting, meditation, and being involved in creative pursuits such as art.

The importance of learning something new

Training is everything. The peach was once a bitter almond; cauliflower is nothing but Cabbage with a College Education.


The ‘Training’ that Twain refers to here, is the process of Learning.

Our goal should be to ‘Live Well’ instead of ‘Live Forever’. Living well does not just mean being in good physical health or being financially stable. It means to be a good, contributing member of society and a good human being.

Learning something new goes a long way in helping us Live Well.

Why learn?

There are so many reasons why developing an everyday learning habit is essential. Here are my top 5:


When you learn something that’s outside your area of expertise or field of knowledge, you cultivate empathy. You learn what it’s like to ‘walk in another’s shoe’ and you learn how to show appreciation and how not to take things for granted.

I once tried to cook something in a different cuisine after watching a cooking video of what I thought was a super simple recipe. In fact, as I watched the video, I thought to myself ‘What an easy way to make a living with recipes like these’! Needless to say, what I made was downright inedible.

We are all great armchair critics of other people’s work. But if you try to learn to do it yourself, it’ll help tone down your criticism next time.


No matter what your chosen field of expertise is, there is always someone who can find a better, faster, easier way to do what you do. Ce la vie!

In plain speak, learning something new teaches you that you don’t know squat. That’s an important life lesson we all know but seem to need constant reminders on.

Sense of purpose

When you have scheduled something to learn every day, it gives you a sense of purpose and makes you feel alive and engaged with the world.

The Japanese word ‘Ikigai’ means a reason for being, a reason to get out of bed each morning. Deep learning provides great Ikigai.

Personal growth

This is obviously why most people attempt to learn. Cross-disciplinary learning engages the human mind and helps us rewire and strengthen those neural networks we talked about earlier.


We all crave a sense of novelty in our lives at various points in time. Learning something new is the best way to avoid boredom and take a break from the same old every day.

Wouldn’t you say learning’s better than having an affair or trying LSD or other such risk-laden, (mis)adventurous pursuits?

Why NOT to learn?

Learning should not be motivated by a desire to be pretentious. While there are a number of other good reasons to learn, it pays to be self-aware of what you don’t know. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. There are fewer things off-putting in life than having a conversation with an obnoxious person who thinks they know more than they do.

What to learn?

What should you learn? This is a good question and surprisingly there is a simple (but profound) answer to this one. And thankfully that does not involve you taking a course in Abstract Algebra or Applied Nuclear Physics. Phew!

Good learning is one that requires you to come up with a new answer in response to an interaction

This means doing the same repetitive action over and over again in response to the same stimulus may make you an expert at that activity but does not constitute as learning something new. We need to step a little bit outside our comfort zones here.

On the other hand, creative pursuits such as music, art, writing, learning languages, programming, etc. are all areas where you have to look at the input, understand and modify your response according to the situation. So, these are all great examples of what you should learn to help rewire your brain.

Is it too late to learn?

The mother of all excuses. It’s not that you disagree with everything above but it’s a bit late in life for you and a little hard to learn new stuff now. So you’re looking for an excuse note, right?

Allow me to share a story.

I came across this piece published in the NY Times in 1973. Here are some excerpts from the article. (Note: The Non-Politically-Correct tone of this article is because it was published at a time before ‘Ageism’ was a thing).

Article from The New York Times July 15, 1973 edition

MADISON—When the fall semester begins at Fairleigh Dickinson University, 75‐year old Arend Drost and nearly 80 other elderly students will be enrolled in a tuition‐free program that allows them to take seats in classes not filled by younger students”.

“The younger students in several classes actually found the older ones to be “better students, more experienced and often eager to help”.

“Hobbies are ridiculous for older people,” (the professor) said, “because it suggests they are like children. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite. Rather than consider the elderly nearing the end of their life, I prefer to think of it in terms of reaching completion.”

The minimum age requirement for students in this online school was 65. The professor was 70 years old.

Does this story inspire you to want to learn something new?

Yes, it may be harder to learn something when we’re old compared to when we were younger. Daniel Levitin, in his book ‘Successful Aging’, says: Once we are past the age of reproducing and passing our genes to the next generation, evolution doesn’t care about how we spend the rest of our lives.

But where evolution doesn’t give us a leg up, experience, and wisdom step in. We may not be fast learners but we are definitely wiser learners.

At the risk of beating the topic to death, I’ll say this again. Learning at every age is important It is even more important in old age to keep learning new things to fend off neural atrophy and decay.  

How to learn effectively?

This is so important that it is the subject of many books. So, I won’t be able to do justice to it in one paragraph. Suffice to say, there are many learning techniques that work and an equal number (some of which are commonly employed) that don’t work.

In their seminal book, ‘Make it Stick’ (Brown, Roediger, McDaniel), layout many tips on how to learn effectively. Some key ones are listed below:

  • Retrieval is better than simply re-reading, for instance
  • Cramming over a short period is not helpful because you don’t retain much nor do you help your neural circuitry. So space your learning over time.
  • Interleaving i.e. mixing up different subjects is better than sticking to one area at a time.  

Will my brain explode if I learn too much?

I thought I was done with this essay and about to write up a conclusion. Then I remembered something my teen once said. (I’d never have come up with this question by myself in a million years).

In response to my asking her to study a little more, she said her brain might explode with all the new learning! As a parent who uses science to justify all her demands, I had to find out a scientific explanation to refute this preposterous claim. And, I did find one.

Dr. Elisabeth Wenger conducted a 2017 study at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin on how the brain can keep learning but not grow in size. The short answer is that for a brief period the brain matter volume does increase during learning. But then goes back to normal soon after, once it finds the most efficient way to store the information.

Dr. Wenger uses the metaphor of brain cells as actors auditioning for a movie. The best ones are kept, the others are sent away or assigned other roles.

To put it mildly, a brain exploding as result of overlearning should be the least of your worries.


Our brains require us to learn something new to stay relevant. Without continuous learning, you cannot live a meaningful life. Or you may not be able to live at all.

Show a child-like curiosity and just immerse yourself in a learning project. It is never too late to learn, nor can you ever learn too much.

Make learning an essential daily habit.

Here’s one of my favorite quotes (attributed to Ricky Gervais):

When you are dead you do not know you are dead. It’s painful and difficult for others. The same applies when you are stupid.

Ricky Jervais

So, I try to learn, if not for myself, but to make it easier on friends and family. I owe them that much.





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  • Very very true Aruna. When we step back and take one look around, we know well that we do not know a squat…Thanks for the beautiful article.

    • Thanks so much for reading, Subadra. You’re so right about that. We have to constantly keep reminding ourselves of that fact!

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