3 Ways To Override Your Brain's 'Critical Learning Period'

Learning doesn't have to stop in childhood. Here's how you can bypass the supposed limits of your brain.

Mark Travers, Ph.D.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | June 17, 2024

The ability to learn is closely tied to the brain's development and its inherent plasticity. Understanding the stages of cognitive development reveals why early childhood and adolescence are particularly critical periods for acquiring new skills and knowledge.

Here's why childhood is considered the critical age for learning and how the brain's remarkable capacity for neuroplasticity during these formative years lays the groundwork for continuous learning and growth.

Neuroplasticity In Childhood

Neuroplasticity refers to the brain's ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. In childhood, this plasticity is at its peak. During these formative years, the brain is exceptionally malleable—allowing for rapid acquisition of new abilities, making it an ideal time for learning new skills.

Studies suggest that language learning is most efficient in early childhood—a sensitive period in development, marked by increased neural plasticity that profoundly influences neural connectivity and shapes perceptual, cognitive and emotional abilities.

Young children can pick up multiple languages simultaneously with ease, a feat that becomes more challenging with age. Moreover, exposure to diverse stimuli, including language, music and sensory experiences, profoundly shapes brain development. These early experiences mold neural pathways and enhance cognitive abilities, setting the stage for lifelong learning and intellectual growth.

The Critical Period Hypothesis

The critical period hypothesis suggests that there are specific windows of time when the brain is highly receptive to certain types of learning, making skill acquisition easier within these periods. This hypothesis is most famously applied to language learning. Introduced by Penfield and Roberts in 1959 and further refined by Lenneberg, it proposes that language acquisition is most efficient between ages 2 and puberty, coinciding with the brain's lateralization process.

However, recent neurological research suggests varying timelines for the lateralization of different language functions. Findings specifically indicate that while subcortical brain areas, such as the limbic and reward systems, develop earlier, the prefrontal cortex matures later. This principle may extend beyond language to areas like motor skills, musical ability and social behaviors.

Does Learning Truly Stop At Childhood?

While early childhood is marked by high neuroplasticity, adolescence brings another significant wave of brain changes that impact learning and motivation. A 2023 study highlights adolescence as a critical period where the brain is particularly attuned to social interactions, leading to the development of social connections and other-oriented tendencies.

This phase is crucial for developing competence, confidence and character, contributing to positive youth development. During adolescence, the brain also undergoes synaptic pruning, eliminating excess neural connections to enhance efficiency. The prefrontal cortex also undergoes remodeling to refine executive functions. Concurrently, the brain strengthens frequently used connections, making this an ideal time to hone skills and solidify knowledge acquired during childhood.

Similarly, adults retain remarkable learning capabilities due to lifelong brain plasticity, as seen in study, published in Aging. Both young and older adults experience brain changes with practice, improving task performance. Intensive practice, like random practice schedules, enhances long-term skill retention despite temporarily lower performance. These findings highlight the importance of challenging environments to promote lifelong brain plasticity and improve quality of life in aging populations.

Since learning is a lifelong journey, here are effective strategies for all age groups that can make this journey more fruitful and enjoyable.

1. For Young Children:

  • Create a stimulating environment by surrounding children with books, educational toys and hands-on activities to encourage exploration and learning. Additionally, activities like music, art, and outdoor play engage all their senses, enhancing their overall learning experience.
  • Children are naturally curious, and encouraging children to ask questions and seek out information helps them become active learners. Answer their questions patiently and provide opportunities for exploration so that children can satisfy their curiosity and deepen their understanding of the world around them. Diverse learning experiences, such as visits to museums, nature walks and interactive science experiments further ignite their curiosity and expand their knowledge base.
  • Play is a fundamental aspect of childhood, and integrating learning into play activities can make learning more enjoyable and engaging for children. Play-based learning allows children to explore their interests, develop problem-solving skills and foster creativity, all while having fun and building positive associations with learning.

2. For Adolescents:

  • Adolescents often have strong interests and passions that can be harnessed to make learning more meaningful and engaging. Identifying and nurturing interests can help tailor learning experiences to align with their passions. This helps them see the relevance of what they are learning and increases their motivation to engage with the material.
  • Support adolescents in setting realistic and achievable learning goals that align with their interests and aspirations. Breaking down large tasks into smaller, manageable steps helps prevent overwhelm and maintains motivation as adolescents make progress towards their goals.
  • Develop critical thinking skills. Encouraging questioning, analysis, and problem-solving through discussions and debates helps adolescents develop their critical thinking skills. Using real-world scenarios to apply theoretical knowledge allows adolescents to see the practical relevance of what they are learning and fosters deeper engagement with the material.

3. For Adults:

  • Leverage lifelong learning opportunities such as enrolling in online courses, attending workshops, seminars or conferences relevant to your interests or career goals. Joining study groups or professional organizations provides opportunities to stay updated on industry trends, exchange knowledge with peers and expand professional networks, fostering ongoing learning and skill development.
  • Use active learning techniques such as participating in discussions, teaching others, and applying knowledge in practical settings instead of passively receiving it. Incorporating hands-on activities and real-world application of new information helps reinforce learning and deepen understanding by providing opportunities for active engagement and problem-solving.
  • Practice spaced repetition—a learning technique that involves reviewing material at increasing intervals over time to enhance retention and understanding. Adults can use tools such as flashcards or spaced repetition software to aid memory and optimize the learning process.

The best age to learn is influenced by the brain's developmental stages and plasticity. Early childhood, with peak neuroplasticity, is ideal for foundational skills and languages, as emphasized by the Critical Period Hypothesis. Adolescence, with its unique brain changes, offers another crucial window for skill refinement and cognitive growth.

By aligning educational practices with these critical periods, one can maximize learning potential and foster a lifelong love of learning. Understanding the science behind these developmental stages empowers us to make informed decisions that support continuous intellectual growth and development.

Our thirst for knowledge is directly related to our sense of openness. Take the Openness To Experience Scale to know your learning style.

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