Remember, when you were a kid, and learning wasn't a process.

It was more like playing a game. You didn't have to put excessive effort into learning to play it. It would just fall into place. You could pick something up by overhearing someone, and yet you won't forget it.

Then why do you need a process to learn something now?

It's because your brain patterns solidify and it becomes harder to adapt. In scientific terms, your brain isn't "plastic" anymore.

When does this happen?

It initially becomes harder to learn around the age of 12 because the chemicals in your brain change during puberty. Around the age of 25, your brain patterns solidify, and they will become harder to change. You can still learn new things when you’re older, but it might take some extra effort. Learning is key to keeping your brain flexible.

How exactly do we learn?

The brain is a highly complex part of the body. Tasks seem simple, but the way our brain completes those tasks is actually much more complex. Learning new things is just remembering how to do something, right?

Not exactly. Your brain must push out old information to learn new information (unlearning). Your brain creates connections that allow you to remember things, but older connections have to be broken to make room for new connections.

Your brain has an NMDA receptor that switches between learning and memory that uses subunits called NR2A and NR2B. NR2B is responsible for making new connections or learning. NR2A is responsible for weakening connections or memory.

These two subunits are responsible for why it becomes harder to learn as you get older.

Now...the big question

How can you make learning easier?

As an adult, it sometimes becomes intimidating when you are not able to remember things you've learned. But, luckily it's not impossible. However, it will demand focused efforts –

  1. Understand your brain: You need to know how your brain works so you can learn in ways that will make it seem easier. Your brain holds onto old ideas thanks to NR2A, but it’s also always adapting to your environment. 

  2. Seek out challenges: Once you’ve reached a certain age or a certain level at your job, you might decide that you’re “finished” learning. Maybe you know everything you need to know about your job, or you don’t like to read and challenge yourself anymore.

    Your brain naturally picks the path of least resistance. Once you begin learning new things, you force your brain to “exercise,” and it will eventually become a little easier to learn. If you have curiosity, don’t stifle it. It’s possible for our curiosity to go away at some point.

  3. Stay put: When you’re learning something new, it’s important to stay focused and continue learning. Don’t give up just because it’s difficult. Your brain might feel fatigued, and you might actually feel physically tired after a session of focused learning. This isn’t a reason to stop.

    If you want to learn something new, whether it’s a hobby, a language, or a sport, you need to practice consistently and stay fully focused when doing so. Fatigue means your brain is working hard to create new pathways. It’s putting that NR2B to work, which doesn’t happen as often as you get older.

“Neurons that fire together wire together.” ~Donald Hebb

Lastly, your brain begins to make it harder to learn around age 12 and then again at age 25. It becomes proportionately harder to learn new things.

But, don't let that stop you!

Learning new things is how you encourage your brain to stay flexible. It's like a muscle - you have to use it to keep it agile.

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