Imagine you’re at a party, and someone hands you a Rubik’s Cube. You twist and turn it, fumbling as you go. It’s frustrating, right? You’re experiencing what is called a “learning penalty.” It’s that initial roadblock that makes any new skill or idea feel like an uphill battle. But here’s the kicker: kids don’t have this problem, do they?
So, What’s a Kid Got That You Don’t?
Think back to when you were a kid learning to ride a bike. You didn’t worry about how shakey you were. You got back on when you fell off. Kids are little scientists, constantly testing hypotheses and learning through trial and error. They don’t pay the learning penalty. They’re not bogged down by fear of failing or looking silly. They go in. Fully.
Think about these examples with kids, and while you do, I’ll ask you to reflect on how you approach these topics as an adult. Do they differ?
Language — Kids absorb new languages effortlessly, unafraid of making mistakes.
Physical Play — Whether it’s climbing or running, children dive in without overthinking or fearing failure.
Creativity — Given art supplies, kids create freely, unburdened by the need for perfection.
Social Skills — Making friends comes naturally; they don’t stress about saying the wrong thing.
Curiosity — Their constant “Why?” questions show a fearless desire to understand, unhindered by the fear of appearing uninformed.
Role-Playing — Kids love to imitate adults without worrying about getting it wrong, embracing the learning that comes through mimicry.
The "learning penalty" is the initial emotional and cognitive friction adults often feel when attempting to learn something new. It's the mental toll booth where you pay in self-doubt, hesitance, and the fear of failure. Unlike children, who approach learning with reckless curiosity, adults tend to overanalyze, hesitate, and stigmatize mistakes, treating them as failures rather than as stepping stones to mastery. This self-imposed penalty not only slows down the learning process but can also deter adults from embarking on new learnings altogether.
You might say, “my brain isn’t as malleable anymore.” Science begs to differ. Neuroplasticity isn’t just for the young; it’s a lifelong practice. Sure, it might be easier for kids, but your brain can still learn and adapt at any age.
You’ve just got to give it a reason to do so.
Here’s where “deliberate practice” comes into play.
“Challenging your brain to learn something new — such as a foreign language or a musical instrument — has been shown, both in healthy individuals and patients dealing with mild cognitive impairment, to improve brain structures and neuroplasticity,” says Mayo Clinic vascular neurologist Dr. Oana Dumitrascu.
Here are six activities to increase neuroplasticity
Build Social Connections
Maintaining strong social ties can do wonders for your brain. Social interaction forces your brain to process complex emotional cues, engage in active listening, and think critically — this will light up your neural networks. A solid social network also has stress-reducing benefits, and we all know stress is no friend to brain health.
Ever feel more alive and aware when you travel?
Traveling does more than just offer Instagram-worthy moments; it’s a full-scale immersion course for your brain. When you’re navigating unfamiliar streets, trying to communicate in a language you barely understand, or simply adapting to different cultural norms, your brain is in overdrive. It’s processing new information at a rapid pace, making connections, and adjusting your pre-existing schemas to accommodate this fresh data. Every twist and turn in a new city and awkward exchange in a foreign tongue serves as a mini-workout session for your cognitive functions.
Engage in Regular Physical Exercise
Exercise is not just for your muscles. The body and brain connection is well-documented. Studies have shown that regular physical activity, particularly aerobic exercise, can stimulate the production of neurotrophic factors, essentially fertilizers for your brain. These factors encourage the growth of new neurons and strengthen existing connections. Whether it’s a brisk walk, a swim, or a dance class, keeping active can really flex your brain’s adaptive muscles.
Take Up a New Skill or Hobby
Remember when you tried to learn the guitar or took a pottery class and felt like your brain was on fire — in a good way? That’s neuroplasticity at work. When you challenge yourself to learn something new, your brain forms new neural pathways. So go ahead, learn how to cook Thai cuisine, or become conversational in a new language. Your brain will thank you.
Mindfulness and Meditation
Meditation and mindfulness practices change the brain’s structure, increasing grey matter in areas related to emotional regulation, self-control, and attention. It’s like taking your brain to a spa, coming out refreshed and more flexible.
Opt for Complex Mental Activities (including video games)
Remember Sudoku? Puzzles like these or even strategy-based video games, require your brain to decipher complex problems. This isn’t about mindlessly scrolling through social media; it’s about engaging in activities that push your cognitive boundaries. Whether it’s chess, mathematical puzzles, or even strategic board games, make sure your brain is breaking a sweat.
Kids don’t pay a “learning penalty” because they dive into new experiences headfirst — no overthinking, just pure, unfiltered engagement. As adults, we often think our brains are past their prime; and less capable of change, but science challenges that notion.
Neuroplasticity isn’t a young person’s game; it’s a lifelong sport.
Whether you are diving into a social circle, globe-trotting, sweating it out, picking up a new hobby, meditating, or tackling brain-bending puzzles, you can actively boost our brain’s adaptability. Sometimes, we get stuck in a rut. These ruts create strong neural pathways. It’s up to you to purposefully steer out of the ruts, trying new ways to challenge the mind to reignite a new pathway.
So are you willing to risk a little discomfort today to rewire your brain for a lifetime of learning?