This week I'm taking an exam to get officially certified as a functionally fluent Greek speaker. I'm nervous I'm not going to pass even though I've been living in a Greek-speaking country for nearly a decade. What's wrong with my brain that learning a foreign language is so incredibly hard for me?
A fascinating episode of Joe Rogan's podcast featuring Stanford neuroscientist Andrew Huberman (hat tip to Cal Newport) recently answered that question, and it's both good and bad news for those like me who want to learn difficult new skills as an adult.
Your brain isn't wired to learn as an adult, but you can force it to.
First the bad news: I am not weird. Our brain chemistry makes it easy to learn new skills when we're children and pretty brutal to do it when we're adults. "Mother Nature designed us to learn what we need to learn and do that, reproduce, and die," Huberman says, revealing the hard truth about learning when you're over 30. In short, you're not wired to do it. You're wired to execute on what you already know.
Huberman's comment is kind of dark, but for me it was also reassuring. There is nothing particularly wrong with my Greek-resistant brain. Gaining complex new skills becomes much more challenging for just about everyone in adulthood.
The good news is that you can force yourself to learn nonetheless -- it's just not particularly comfortable. The long, fascinating podcast goes into depth about brain chemistry and lots of other interesting topics, but the essential message from Huberman is that significant learning as an adult requires two steps.
Get uncomfortably focused. "If you want to learn and change your brain as an adult, there has to be a high level of focus and engagement. There's no way around that," Huberman insists. That level of focus is unavoidably uncomfortable because, in order to signal to your brain that something is urgent enough to learn as an adult, your body releases adrenaline, causing you to feel agitated. Most people give up at this point, but if you want to really change your brain, you must persist.
Get deep rest. Once you force yourself through this discomfort to practice or study your new skill, you're only halfway done with the adult learning process. To cement those gains, your brain needs to release another chemical called acetylcholine. And to get it to do that, you need to give it a real rest. "A lot of the changes in these brain structures occur after learning during deep sleep," Huberman says. "But it also occurs during periods of naps and shallow sleep or even just periods where people deliberately decompress, where they're not focusing on one thing in particular."
The discussion goes into much more detail about ways to hack this process further, from cold showers to the role of nicotine in learning (no one recommends smoking). You can check them all out below. This part of the discussion begins around minute 34. Personally, I don't have time right now. I have to go power through some Greek vocabulary and then take a nap.