Scientific Studies Explain Why Children Learn Faster than Adults

Scientific research yields valuable information that helps us understand why children learn faster than adults. Keep reading.
Scientific Studies Explain Why Children Learn Faster than Adults

Last update: 18 January, 2023

Riding a bike, learning a language, learning how to use technological instruments or devices. These are all situations where children learn faster and easier than adults. Surely, you’ve heard the phrase that says that children are like sponges, as they absorb the information and stimuli that surround them.

However, until now, it wasn’t entirely clear why children have an easier time acquiring new learning compared to adults. However, a neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is responsible for providing an answer to this question.

Neurotransmitter GABA

GABA is an amino acid that’s part of the central nervous system. It acts as one of the main neurotransmitters that perform specific inhibitory functions in the transmission of nerve impulses. In other words, its function is to reduce neuronal activation in the brain. This chemical substance provides us with numerous benefits. It’s also known as a neurotransmitter that reduces stress and anxiety.

A woman high-fiving a child as he learns.
High levels of GABA are associated with a lower brain capacity to learn because its main function is to regulate neuronal excitation.

Conversely, the lower the levels of this neurotransmitter, the higher the brain activation.

How it was discovered

In 2011, British neurophysiologist Charlotte Stagg discovered that GABA modification plays an important role in motor cortical plasticity. In this study,  participants were asked to learn a finger movement sequence while the research team scanned their brains via functional magnetic resonance imaging.

The results showed that when GABA concentration is lower, there’s greater activity in the motor cortex during learning. In contrast, when levels are high, brain activation is lower and reactions are slower.

Why do children learn faster?

Many families decide to introduce their children to non-native languages, sports, or artistic disciplines at an earlier age. What they seek is to make the most of their young brains, as they’re aware of the complexities involved in adult learning.

A study in children and adults

To continue with the scientific evidence, we’ll highlight recent research published in the journal Current Biology. This study analyzed the variation of GABA levels before, during, and after a group of children between 8 and 11 years old and another group of people between 18 and 35 years old performed a visual learning task. Therefore, they’ve come up with a very interesting finding: Inhibitory processing in children’s brains is more dynamic and adapts more quickly to stabilize learning than in adults.

In the youngest participants, the presence of this amino acid was maintained minutes after the activity had ended, which prevented new stimuli from interfering with the memory they had just generated. This point is essential for efficient learning, as it facilitates the conversion of vague knowledge to more robust and consolidated knowledge.

A woman and a young girl looking at a laptop computer.
We know that children find it easier to acquire new knowledge and develop skills compared to older people.

Childhood learning, adult admiration

The fact that children learn faster is a reality that amazes and inspires admiration in adults. For example, we find it amazing that our children are able to operate technological devices at the speed they do, while we need a few weeks to use a new platform or device without feeling like a fish out of water.

The same is often true for sports, instruments, foreign languages, and even math or literacy. At some time in your life, you’ve probably experienced regret for not having studied a language or attended piano lessons when you were a child. You probably think it would have been much easier back then. In any case, you should keep in mind that learning is feasible at any stage of life, although with a particular rhythm and development.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

    • Frank, S.M., Becker, M., Qi, A. (2022). Aprendizaje eficiente en niños con un rápido impulso de GABA durante y después del entrenamiento. Current Biology. VOLUMEN 32, NÚMERO 23, P5022-5030.E7, DICIEMBRE 05, 2022.
    • Stagg CJ,. Bachtiar V,. Johansen-Berg H. (2011). El papel de GABA en el aprendizaje motor humano. 2011 Marzo 22;21(6):480-4. DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2011.01.069. Epub 2011 Marzo 3. PMID: 21376596; PMCID: PMC3063350.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.