science of us

How Thinking Like a Little Kid Can Keep You Sharp As You Age

Photo: Christophe Bourlier / EyeEm/Getty Images

At some point in our lives, we’re all pressured to give up our adolescent ways and transition into financially responsible, well-balanced, well-rounded grown-ups — a concept the internet likes to call adulting. You’re supposed to think like a grown-up, making decisions by drawing on all that you’ve learned over the years — or, at the very least, you’re supposed to want to think like a grown-up.

But what if adulting is overrated? Sometimes, it turns out, it might be better to strive for a younger mind-set: In a paper recently published in the journal Human Development, Rachel Wu, a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside, theorizes that you can learn new skills more effectively by “thinking like an infant.”

In her paper, Wu points out that although getting older is generally associated with a cognitive decline, the details of why that happens are unclear. As we age, we often feel less sharp, but we can’t quite explain why we feel that way, and Wu suggests it has something to do with the way we learn. But we can change this pattern, she argues, by retraining ourselves to think more like children. “We argue that across your lifespan, you go from ‘broad learning’ (learning many skills as an infant or child) to ‘specialized learning,’ (becoming an expert in a specific area) when you begin working,” Wu said in a statement. “And that leads to cognitive decline initially in some unfamiliar situations, and eventually in both familiar and unfamiliar situations.”

In other words, when we start our careers, we’re generally encouraged to focus on one particular area, which can discourage cognitive development in many other areas. You change your entire perspective on learning, and if Wu’s theory holds up, that has much to do with why you feel like you’re not as sharp as you once were: By working to develop a more specialized knowledge base, you’re exercising a handful of cognitive skills and letting the rest lie dormant.

In the paper, Wu and her colleagues highlight the difference between specialized learning and broad learning by identifying six traits that define each one: Specialized learning is closed-minded, routine-based, and knowledge-driven; lacks access to expert help or teachers; carries high consequences for mistakes or failures, like getting fired; is based on a fixed mind-set, or a belief that abilities are innate; comes with little commitment to learning; and allows for only one skill to be learned at a time. Broad learning, on the other hand, is open-minded, focused on exploring new patterns and skills; depends on consistent, individual access to teachers and mentors who help you learn; fosters a forgiving environment that allows for mistakes and failures; is based on a growth mind-set, or a belief that abilities are developed through effort; comes with serious commitment to learning; and allows for multiple skills to be learned at once.

Wu’s theory supports the work of author and speaker Emilie Wapnick, whose TED Talk highlights the power of “multipotentiality,” the ability to have multiple passions and interests simultaneously. Like Wu, Wapnick argues that the need to find our “one true calling” can be stressful, and that this idea is ingrained in us from an early age, when we’re asked what we want to be when we grow up. The closer we get to actually growing up, the more serious and pressing this question becomes, and the more pressure we feel to be specific in our answers.

But as we shift to specialized learning, we lose out on some of the strengths of multipotentiality, or broad learning: the ability to adapt to new roles, for example. Broad learning also makes it easier to synthesize two or more ideas, Wapnick argues, which is the backbone of creative thought — when you have the ability to focus on more than one subject, it’s easier to envision how those two subjects fit together. As Steve Jobs once said, “Creativity is just connecting things.”

If Wu’s theory is any indicator, then, the key to maintaining our cognitive ability as we age is to stop learning like an adult and to learn like a child instead: Get out of your comfort zone, embrace new skills and hobbies, and don’t be afraid to make mistakes.

How Thinking Like a Little Kid Can Keep You Sharp As You Age