There’s Another Big Window for Learning After Childhood

Children rightly have a reputation for being little knowledge sponges, absorbing all the information that’s around them. But if you happen to not be a child, take heart: There’s new evidence that your brain may be especially teachable later on down the line, too.

Such is the lesson of a recent paper lead-authored by University College London cognitive neuroscientist Lisa J. Knoll and highlighted by David Robson at the BPS Research Digest. Published in Psychological Science, the research suggests that teens and even full-blown adults have a shot at learning excellence.

Knoll and her colleagues recruited over 600 participants between the ages of 11 and 33, then randomly assigned them into three different groups, each of which got up to 20 days of training in one of three learning tasks. Intriguingly, the tasks were nonlinguistic: First was “numerosity discrimination,” where participants estimated how many dots appeared on a screen; second was “relational reasoning,” or doing nonverbal, pattern-matching puzzles like you’d find on an IQ test; and third was “face perception,” where they’d get glimpses of two photos and then be asked if they showed the same face or not.

While the facial recognizers didn’t improve much with training, the other two groups did. The real action in the results, however, came in the age groups: Only the older adolescents and adults got better at the numerosity discrimination, and while every age group improved in relational reasoning, the late adolescents and adults outpaced the kids, with 16- to 18-year olds almost doubling the improvements of those younger than they were. While these are impressive results, you should also note, as Robson does, that these are broad, nonfactual modes of reasoning, so there would have to be more research to see how applicable these gains would be in real life.

Also, it may be that the wily older teens and adults figured out better cognitive strategies for the tasks than the youngest kids, or — as would align with co-author Sarah-Jayne Blakemore’s brain scans — suggesting that the teen brain is super flexible. Indeed, separate brain-imaging work coming out of Columbia University has found that teen brains intertwine two different kinds of memory, making them predisposed to learning lots. Teens, it seems, are good for more than memes.

There’s Another Big Window for Learning After Childhood