Learning Challenging New Skills Like Photography Improves Memory

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Three-month-long experiment demonstrates the importance of challenging new activities for older minds.

Older people are often advised to keep active for cognitive health, but passive activities like listening to music or doing puzzles may not be enough.

According to a recent study published in Psychological Science, in order to boost cognition, activities need to be active and mentally taxing.

In their study, Park et al. (2013) randomly divided 221 people aged between 60 and 90 into a series of groups:

  • One group took up photography or quilting, or both, and engaged in the activity for 15 hours a week over three months.
  • One control group took part in social activities like playing games or watching movies, but did not learn any new skills.
  • Another control group completed word puzzles or listened to classical music.

After three months those who had been learning photography or quilting showed improved memory function.

In comparison those listening to music, doing puzzles or engaging in social activities had not improved.

This study clearly shows the importance of engaging with taxing activities, especially in later years. The lead author Denise Park explained:

“It seems it is not enough just to 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. When you are inside your comfort zone you may be outside of the enhancement zone.”

This is one of only a handful of studies to experimentally show the benefits keeping an active mind.

Previous studies have been correlational: in other words they have only an association  between staying mentally active and improved cognitive skills.

The problem with these sorts of studies is we don’t know that it’s staying mentally active that is really causing older minds to be sharper. It could be, for example, that people whose minds are sharper are more likely to take on more challenging activities.

However, this study is good evidence that it’s actually the mentally stimulating activities with which people are engaging that really is causing the improvements in memory.

‘Successful’ ageing

It’s also a great study because it includes activities people might actually enjoy!

Who wants to sit, slogging away at brain training apps when you could be doing something fun like photography?

And, of course, it doesn’t have to be photography, it just has to be something which requires your active mental engagement.

You could just as easily see these benefits from learning another language, playing bridge or any other reasonably complex and challenging activity.

It’s interesting to note, though, that in this study learning photography was more beneficial than the quilting, probably because it requires learning so much new information. Quilting, on the other hand, after the initial learning, is mostly a procedural skill.

With the average age in countries around increasing, these types of findings will become more and more important:

“…unlike computer training, productive engagement has the potential to be self-reinforcing and propagate continued learning and intellectual stimulation. [...] The present results provide some of the first experimental evidence that learning new things and keeping the mind engaged may be an important key to successful cognitive aging…” (Park et al., 2013)

Image credit: Leo Herbert

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About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 6 December 2013

Text: © All rights reserved.

Images: Creative Commons License