Humanitarian learning: your fountain of youth?

One of the biggest barriers to learning, not often discussed in professional settings, is age.

Before I get in trouble, let me stress that many older people are excellent learners – just search for ‘grandma TikTok influencers’ to see some examples.

But they have to work extra hard at it. As we get older, our brain starts to work against us when it comes to learning. And this has more of a direct impact on humanitarian policy and practice than one might think.

The rough explanation for this, from someone who is not a neuroscientist, is that humans have huge brain capacity but very little innate imprinting – in other words, there are very few things already downloaded to our brain when we’re born. There are less than 100 things we come out of the womb ‘knowing’ or being able to do, and they are all reflexes. Everything else must be learned from our environment – so early childhood and our teenage years are a massively productive time of neural connections being created and reinforced. But as we reach our late 20s, evolutionary preference to conserve energy kicks in and our massive brain starts relying on the shortcuts and pathways it has already created, rather than constructing new ones.

This is problematic for at least three important things: achieving change, opening ourselves up to other perspectives, and personal health.

Achieving change

People who aren’t constructing new neural pathways are fundamentally closed to the kind of thinking we need to see change in the world.

This is why many social reform and change movements feature people directly negatively affected by a particular system or practice, and their youthful allies. People affected by injustice have a direct incentive to call for a new world, while the young still have the brain plasticity to imagine it.

We see the effects of brain rigidity and a resistance to building new neural pathways all the time in the humanitarian sector. No matter how many times people say they recognise the importance of the agency of people affected by crisis, or working towards longer term solutions, or reaching the hardest to reach in conflict zones, or the centrality of protection, particularly for children in conflict, we also hear again and again why organisations can’t listen more, why funding can’t be more flexible and more direct to local actors, why working around sanctions regimes is challenging, why, just in general, it’s ‘too complicated’ to change anything.

We can find 10,000 reasons why the status quo will have to do just fine.

Of course there are exceptions. You can probably (hopefully) think of a few who might work in an international organisation or a donor agency who have kept their brain plasticity. They are the ones who ask: ‘but what if?’ or ‘how can we make this work?’ or ‘teach me how we can do better’.

Opening ourselves up to other perspectives

As we age, we also become less open to other perspectives and viewpoints. This topic has come to the fore significantly in recent years as the sector reckons with its global north influences, its colonial past and its ongoing inequities. The humanitarian research and learning space has been highly critical of the failures of the sector to localise and decolonise, but we have yet to fully face our own problematic power dynamics and lack of progress in decolonising knowledge production.

This relates closely to the complaint that so many humanitarian evaluations and research studies repeat the same recommendations – we tend to read this as a failure of donors and operating agencies to implement past recommendations. But perhaps instead it is just as much a failure of the humanitarian research, evaluation and learning community – dominated by global north individuals and organisations (including the ALNAP Secretariat) – who fail to incorporate a wider range of perspectives that can imagine different recommendations or solutions to perennial problems?

Brain health

A final problem with our brains getting more rigid is that this is actually quite bad for our mental health and susceptibility to age-related brain illnesses. So, if you want a good reason to dedicate some time to learning today, consider this: it will make you feel younger. This may seem biased, coming from a researcher who works at a learning network, so do I have any evidence to back this up? Of course.

Studies on learning and neuroscience have shown how learning literally constructs new tissue and forms new physical connections between your brain cells. They also think these physical processes contribute to a reduced chance of dementia and other age-related illnesses and increase brain plasticity, which helps fight the symptoms of these illnesses, and is a characteristic of younger brains.

So read or watch something today. Or have a conversation with someone and ask them to teach you something. Or challenge them to tell you something you don’t know, or convince you of a position you currently disagree with.

Exercise that brain – it might make you more of a change ally, more connected to the great diversity of thought and perspective in the humanitarian space, while making you (or at least your brain) feel young again.