We tend to convince ourselves we're really bad at learning new things. We think our tired, old brains can't possibly absorb all the new information required to master new skills.
The age of our brains is not the problem. The real impediment to learning is that we tend to do it the "adult way." If we simply took a more childlike approach, we'd be far better off. That's what UCR psychology professor Rachel Wu claims in a scientific paper recently published in the journal Human Development.
After five decades of research, Wu believes she can confidently claim there's no such thing as prime learning years. It's the method in which we learn that truly matters.
How we learn when we're kids
As infants and children, Wu says we take a "broad learning" approach. Everything is unfamiliar and new. We're not afraid to fail. We become obsessed with learning something, like how to read or tie our shoes.
Children's environments are primed for accelerated learning, too. They're surrounded by adults, teachers and mentors who help guide them. They are often learning several new skills at once. Kids are taught to believe that if they keep trying, they'll eventually get the hang of it.
Everything changes once we become adults. We switch from a "board learning" approach to "specialized learning." This usually happens when we start our careers. We pick a lane and settle in. Far more impediments to learning appear, both external and internal.
We no longer have access to mentors. We fear failure. We put more emphasis on natural talent over effort, convincing ourselves that if it's too difficult, it's best to just give up. We prefer to stick with what's familiar. And if we do try to learn a new skill, it's usually just one.
It's as if all forces are working against our adult selves. That's why Wu and her research partners suggest we embrace the "board learning" technique. If you'd like to learn something new -- say another language, an instrument or how to code -- try to approach the endeavor like a kid.
"Approach the world with childlike wonder!" Easier said than done. How do you actually do this in practice? Wu says there are six factors that encompass broad learning. Here's how to apply them to learning a new skill as an adult.
- Step outside your comfort zone. Embrace the unfamiliar. Take a different approach to learning than you usually do. Perhaps that means enrolling in a class with a bunch of strangers.
- Get guidance. Find a mentor, expert or teacher who will help guide you.
- Silence the negative self talk. Believing that talent trumps effort will derail your efforts.
- Accept that you're going to make mistakes. Over and over again. Pick yourself up and brush them off. More mistakes are on your horizon.
- Remain committed. Quitting after two months because it's hard? Not going to get you there.
- Learn more than one thing at once. It puts your brain in learning mode, and helps you absorb more information at once.
The adult way of learning is aging our brains
Once we begin to engage in specialized learning, Wu believes our brains are worse for the wear. "If adults were to engage in broad learning... similar to those from early childhood experiences," she said in a statement, "aging adults could expand cognitive functioning beyond currently known limits."
Wu uses herself as an example. She started painting seven years ago. She was told she was terrible. She kept at it, taking classes and practicing often. On reviewing her more recent paintings, people have told her she's talented. Is this talent natural? No. Wu was committed to practice and learning until she improved.
"What I want adults to take away from this study is that we CAN learn many new skills at any age," Wu says. "It just takes time and dedication.