mature woman writing on computer

How Childhood Learning Patterns Can Help Us Now

The way we learned as children can help us redefine what means to be an aging adult in terms of cognition, according to new research.

Rachel Wu, a psychology professor at the University of California Riverside, says that habits developed throughout life can either encourage or discourage cognitive development.

“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, and that leads to cognitive decline initially in some unfamiliar situations, and eventually in both familiar and unfamiliar situations,” Wu said.

In the paper, “A Novel Theoretical Life Course Framework for Triggering Cognitive Development Across the Lifespan,” Wu argues that if we reimagine cognitive aging as a developmental outcome, it opens the door for new tactics that could dramatically improve the cognitive health and quality of life for aging adults. In particular, if adults embrace the same “broad learning experiences” (characterized by six factors below) that promote children’s growth and development, they may see an increase in their cognitive health, and not the natural decline that we all expect.

Wu and her collaborators define “broad learning,” as encompassing these six factors:

Open-minded, input-driven learning (learning new patterns, new skills, exploring outside of one’s comfort zone).

Individualized scaffolding (consistent access to teachers and mentors who guide learning).

Growth mindset (belief that abilities are developed with effort).

Forgiving environment (allowed to make mistakes and even fail).

Serious commitment to learning (learn to master essential skills, persevere despite setbacks).

Learning multiple skills simultaneously.

The researchers explain that intellectual engagement (via the six factors) declines from infancy to aging adulthood as we move from “broad learning” to “specialization.” They argue that, during infancy and childhood, engaging in these six factors actually increases basic cognitive abilities (e.g., working memory, inhibition, attention), and they predict that the same is the case in adulthood.

“When you look across the lifespan from infancy, it seems likely that the decline of broad learning has a causal role in cognitive aging. But, if adults were to engage in broad learning via the six factors that we provide (similar to those from early childhood experiences), aging adults could expand cognitive functioning beyond currently known limits,” Wu said.