With Proper Motivation, Adults Can Learn New Things as Easily as Children Can

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How much easier is it to learn when we are children? originally appeared on Quora - the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

Answer by Mariano Sigman, Founder of the Integrative Neuroscience Laboratory of UBA, author of The Secret Life of the Mind: How Your Brain Thinks, Feels, and Decides, on Quora:

The most important point when we compare adults and children learning is the change in motivation and - on the same line - the urge and necessity to learn. In the last years of my life, as an adult, I tried to learn two different things: to speak French, and to play the accordion. In the first one I was quite successful, in the second one I failed miserably. I think I understand why. It has nothing to do with the techniques involved in language or music, or the phonemes, or how to coordinate the two hands on the accordion... the most important difference was the necessity that I had for one, and not for the other.

I arrived to France when I was thirty. I did not speak a word of French. Had I not learned it I would not have had a social life, which is almost to say I would not have had a life. I struggled with the new language with a determination and motivation very similar to that of a child. When a baby begins to walk, they do so with a remarkable tenacity. They wake up in the morning and begin to walk. They fall and walk again, and so on, until the next day when they start all over. Very rarely, as adults, do we devote so much practice and effort to achieve something.

The accordion was an instrument I very much wanted to play, but playing or not was not going to change my life and I lacked the time and will to postpone all other activities of my life. It simply felt like it was too hard, like I was too old and slightly rusty to learn a new instrument. But it was a simpler and more mundane explanation. I did not give it sufficient time.

We forget how much we have worked to achieve skills as children (to speak, to walk, to read, to speak a second language). Once we are proficient, it seems so easy that we forget how hard it was to learn this from scratch. Experiments show, in fact, that when one compensates for the amount of time and motivation, adult learning is not so different than children learning. You may have seen pictures showing how synaptogenesis (the capacity to form new synapses) explodes early in life. This is true. But it does not mean or imply that our capacity to learn will follow this dependency. In fact, it does not.

Many experiments in psychology and neuroscience have shown that motivation (and in the brain, the production of dopamine), changes drastically the capacity to learn. What is harder as an adult is to feel again the urge, the vital necessity to learn, and with that the motivation which is the main gate to learning, early or late in life.

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