We’ve already talked about our cool new friend, neuroplasticity (a.k.a. “your brain is reshaping with every single thought you have.“)
Basically what neuroscience have proven is that we can create neurons and neural pathways at any age, meaning we can learn anything at any age.
So assuming that’s how it work–and there’s no shortage of scientific research backing it up–let me throw you a question:
Why don’t we learn at the same speed when we get older?
Why is it so difficult for older people to learn new things?
What’s going on there?
(Ok, that’s actually three questions. Sorry, I got excited. But I won’t leave you hanging, I promise.)
Where the Difficulty Actually Comes From
The main difference between a kid learning something and an adult learning the same thing is very simple.
The adult adds something to the learning process that the child doesn’t.
Good ol’ resistance.
And this resistance comes in 3 main flavors.
Flavor #1: “This is hard”
Perhaps the most basic one is simply labeling the learning process as difficult.
Children simply set themselves to the task and learn.
They don’t invest any time or energy categorizing tasks and projects according to how difficult they will be to learn and complete.
Adults are far more calculating.
They want to be able to compare the estimated time, approximate level of effort, and anticipated benefit associated with learning anything (yes, you know you do, bad calculating adult!)
While children are driven forward by their unbridled curiosity, adults want to know they’re making a good investment. The trouble is that we’re not terribly good at making these kinds of assessments and we often overlook the incredible benefit that learning per se will bring to our brains’ health (and the fun of it! kids get this part extremely well).
Flavor #2: “But I like it here”
Another kind of resistance is our hesitance to leave our comfort zones.
This one isn’t too surprising. After all, they’re called comfort zones for a reason: we spent a long time creating them and getting them just right so we can feel like at home.
But they’re a lot like a best friend who turns into our worst enemy (like what happens in every bad movie).
Our comfort zone is a place where we know everything already and feel competent, so we can’t learn anything new without leaving it.
To immerse ourselves in something new and unknown we have to expose ourselves to the possibility of failure (omg, fail?), of feeling awkward and clumsy (what? I passed PE already), and, above all, of being judged by ourselves and others (no way!).
Yes, I bet that was your mind talking.
Think of how different this is from the way children approach the learning process.
To them, it’s just part of the discovery mode they use to face the world that surrounds them. It’s not uncomfortable (though it might be for us adults watching it). It’s fun and exciting.
Flavor #3: “I don’t want to screw this up”
The last related form of resistance is the fear of failure. Failure goes hand in hand with learning. It’s an integral part of the process.
If we try to avoid failing at all costs, we won’t really be avoiding failure–we’ll actually be avoiding the learning process altogether.
A baby doesn’t punish themselves just because they fail at something; they just keep going until they get it right and repeat it until what they’ve learned is reinforced.
But as adults we’re our own worst judges and tormentors.
We’re hard on ourselves for failing, we get frustrated and feel embarrassed at the thought of how ridiculous we must look.
That kills our motivation to keep trying and, eventually, we abandon learning altogether.
If You’re Not Growing, You’re Shrinking
So, neuroscience has proven that our brain has the capacity to create neurons and neural connections throughout our entire lifetime.
But to take advantage of this enormous power, we need to be exposed to enough stimulus to provoke the brain to grow.
If we don’t subject it to cognitive stimuli, it won’t feel the need to adapt.
Instead, it will get comfortable with its routine functions and go to work trying to make them more efficient, eliminating the neurons and connections it doesn’t need.
That means if you’re not working to grow your brain, your brain is working to shrink.
And with enough time and shrinking, your learning speed will decrease as well.
What’s the best way to reverse this shrinking process?
A good way to start is by looking for ways to step outside your comfort zone.
Each time you do, your brain is forced to adapt to new stimuli and experiences. In those conditions, learning is guaranteed.
Now, no one likes to leave their comfort zone just for the sake of it, so it’s good to push ourselves to do it by exploring and learning things that we’re passionate about. In other words, by chasing (and reaching) our dreams.
Learning as a Way of Life
When was the last time you felt clumsy learning something completely new?
Learning a new language, challenging your sense of rhythm by taking dance classes, deciding to start an online business without being an expert, overcoming your stage fright by doing theater, brushing up on your vocabulary and writing your memoir, quieting your mind and meditating in nature, breaking the ice and meeting new people, overcoming laziness and cultivating your body, broadening your horizons and discovering different parts of the world, putting your coordination to the test by juggling, immersing yourself in new cultures and different ways of understanding life, amplifying your range of motion by doing versatille movements with your body…
It doesn’t matter if you don’t do it well or feel awkward.
The best thing you can do is learn to laugh at yourself and not take being an adult too seriously. When you think about it, we’re really just kids with big bodies (and even bigger heads!)
Reclaim the excitement you felt when you were learning as a child.
Embrace the process and the mistakes.
Discover, in each and every moment, the world that surrounds you as if it were new.
Approach life as full of possibilities.
Do this and you’ll keep your brain young and live an exceptional life full of extraordinary lessons.
So, what are you going to learn today?
Leave a comment and let me know.