Necessity is All You Need To Learn Faster

Our brain doesn’t like to change much after we hit 25 years. At least, that’s what neuroscience discovered recently, and there is a reason why. Before that milestone, brains are literally floating in neurotransmitters like dopamine and acetylcholine. The former is our internal reward system. The latter is intended to mark neurons that were most active during some activity (a.k.a learning).

So, why 25, after all? Is it over after, and you cannot learn anything? How about that grandma who plays World of Warcraft at 80?

There are good news and bad news. Good ones are that it’s not over at all, and grown-ups can also learn at a child’s speed. The bad news are that you need a different kind of mechanism. Almost no one knows about it because nobody looked at neuroscience until recently. At least outside of… well, neuroscience (and maybe high-performance community).

The mechanism is quite simple and is based on two things: urgency and necessity. Let me tell you how mother nature works first. At 2 years old, a human brain contains approximately 100 trillion connections between neurons (synapses in scientific lingua franca). At 25 years, there are “only” (yeah, only… heh) 50 trillion. What happened?

Pruning happened.

The brain doesn’t want to do everything like being an athlete who writes iOS apps while writing spoken word poems (simultaneously, haha… a bad joke!). It wants to have a broad knowledge to activate creative superpowers but, at the same time, be specialized in surviving and thriving in the surrounded environment.

Imagine a jungle. You need to know what plants are poisonous, what animal is edible, and so on. What are the chances that you will migrate to Siberia? 150 years ago, it took up to several months to get to some distant place, and we had canned food then. 1000 years ago, migration would take years. Now? Max 18 hours, and you are in Japan or Alaska or somewhere. Of course, now we have better tools for surviving and antibiotics and doctors everywhere to focus on other vital areas.

Anyway, the brain prunes connections and reinforce those that are used often. After 25 years, it just thinks that since you are alive, you’ve learned enough and shuts down the whole NSF (Neurotransmitter Soup Factory - not an official term).

What’s next? Next, it awaits to signals from the environment that will mark a situation as super important. Imagine you need to learn French. Suppose it used to speak occasionally with your far friend, who might be an asshole and pain in one place sometimes. In that case, you will get an “occasional dictionary,” and your grammar and pronunciation would be quite bad.

What if your spouse speaks French and the parents as well? You admire them and enjoy talking to them. The context differs from the prior one. In that situation, it is picked by the brain as essential for survival.

Another scenario is changing a job if you feel there is an economic crisis coming. You will learn anything if you have the necessity. What if you are learning another language? Imagine your significant other is not allowing to eat until you express yourself in that language (a real example from neuroscience experiments).

What about urgency? Same as a necessity - there should be pressure to activate NSF. There should be some stress or eustress (means beneficial stress - not that kind of stress when people are red like tomato yelling at their phones while eating a big fat cake).

It makes sense if you take a deeper look. Why the heck will nature spend precious and rare resources (like food and water 100,000 years ago) if you use it in 20 years… once? Nature doesn’t like it, so there are mechanisms to prevent spending energy without usefulness for survival.

So, to learn as fast as a child (maybe slightly slower but only slightly) - you need urgency and necessity. Combine them (correctly, through experiments and shit), and you will be an unstoppable fast learner.