Suzana Herculano-Houzel

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Children seem to beat adults ten-to-zero in terms of speed when it comes to learning new things. Tell them a new word just once and it becomes part of their vocabulary. Teach children a foreign language and they’ll speak it without an accent. Put them at the piano and they’ll learn to strum a tune more easily than any adult. Or will they?

For some scholars of motor learning, it is a mistake to consider children’s capacity for learning universally superior to that of adults. Rather than having an indiscriminately “slower” brain for learning, adults’ disadvantage may lie in a very specific effect: interference between tasks.

If they try to learn one, and only one, motor task, such as strumming the piano, adults and children will show the same speed of improvement – and adults will generally perform better. If, however, they try to learn five different melodies at the same time, or just two, the children will learn them all equally well – but the adults will struggle to remember even the first melody. This is task interference: the attempt at a second simultaneous learning disrupts the first, and the adult ends up not learning any of the melodies, not because they are intrinsically slower, but because their learning is subject to interference.

It makes sense that children’s learning should be immune to interference between tasks. The world brings many more new things to a child’s brain than an adult’s, and these are recorded by a child’s brain abundantly in raw material like a notebook with many pages, which is therefore capable of making notes on several fronts at the same time. After adolescence, the raw material is still there – but the entry notebook, now down to one page, only notes one new thing at a time.

This doesn’t mean that adults can’t learn any more, or that they have more difficulty than children. They may have to take it slowly, but the adult brain gets there too. We no longer learn five new songs at once, but give us a few hours to study just one and the result could be a concert that no child will ever play. We have something valuable in our brains that children are only just acquiring: the baggage of several years of life. And we keep accumulating more, perhaps even as well as children – as long as it’s one thing at a time.

Originally published in Folha de São Paulo on December, 2006.

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