Are you smarter than a 5th grader? Study reveals why kids learn faster than adults

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Turns out many adults aren’t smarter than a 5th grader. Kids and adults have different brain messaging signals that affect how quickly they pick up on new material. That’s according to a study that examined visual learning in elementary school students and adults using behavioral and advanced neuroimaging techniques. Researchers have found that these differences lie in GABA, a neurotransmitter critical to stabilizing learning.

Until this study, the belief that children are stronger learners than adults was an accepted notion despite limited evidence to support it.

“It is often assumed that children learn more efficiently than adults, although the scientific support for this assumption has, at best, been weak, and, if it is true, the neuronal mechanisms responsible for more efficient learning in children are unclear,” says Takeo Watanabe of Brown University in a media release.

GABA has been a constant focus of the research on this topic. Still, the team noted that GABA in kids had only been measured at one point in time. It also hasn’t been measured at a time of specific significance for learning. To explore things in more depth, they investigated how GABA levels change before, during, and after learning.

Mother helping child study and do homework
(Photo by Unsplash+ in collaboration with Getty Images)

In doing so, they discovered that visual learning triggered a boost in children’s GABA levels within their visual cortex, which processes visual information. These levels remained heightened even after the training ended. Among the adults, the responses weren’t as strong. There were no effects seen in GABA at all, suggesting that new material training can quickly increase the concentration of GABA in children, leading to more stabilized learning. Additional experiments further backed these findings up.

“In subsequent behavioral experiments, we found that children indeed stabilized new learning much more rapidly than adults, which agrees with the common belief that children outperform adults in their learning abilities,” says Sebastian M. Frank, now at the University of Regensburg in Germany. “Our results therefore point to GABA as a key player in making learning efficient in children.”

The team agrees that these results should encourage educators and parents to provide children with opportunities to learn new skills, even if it’s just riding a bike or learning simple math. This work also has the potential to change how neuroscientists view brain maturation in kids, especially with regard to visual learning. The researchers note that differences in maturation rates between brain regions and functions should be the focus of studies to come. Further, they hope to investigate GABA responses across other learning methods, such as reading and writing.

The findings are published in the journal Current Biology.

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