Back in my school days I thought that skill was an innate thing, a quality that you were born with that was basically immutable. Thus things like study and practice always confused me as I felt that I’d either get something or I wouldn’t which is probably why my academic performance back then was so varied. Today however I don’t believe anyone is below mastering a skill, all that is required is that you put the required amount of time and (properly focused) practice in and you’ll eventually make your way there. Innate ability still counts for something though as there are things you’re likely to find much easier than others and some people are even just better in general at learning new skills. Funnily enough that latter group of people likely has an attribute that you wouldn’t first associate with that skill: lower overall brain activity.
Research out of the University of California – Santa Barbara has shown that people who are most adept at learning new tasks actually show a lower overall brain activity level than their slow learning counterparts. The study used a fMRI machine to study the subject’s brains whilst they were learning a new task over the course of several weeks and instead of looking at a specific region of the brain the researchers focused on “community structures”. These are essentially groups of nodes within the brain that are densely interconnected with each other and are likely in heavy communication. Over the course of the study the researchers could identify which of these community structures remained in communication and those that didn’t whilst measuring the subject’s mastery of the new skill they were learning.
What the researchers found is that people who were more adept at mastering the skill showed a rapid decrease in the overall brain activity used whilst completing the task. For the slower learners many of the regions, namely things like the visual and motor cortexs, remained far more active for a longer period, showing that they were more actively engaged in the learning process. As we learn skills much of the process of actually doing that skill gets offloaded, becoming an automatic part of what we do rather than being a conscious effort. So for the slow learners these parts of the brain remained active for far longer which could, in theory, mean that they were getting in the way of making the process automatic.
For me personally I can definitely attest to this being the case, especially with something like learning a second language. Anyone who’s learnt a different language will tell you that you go through a stage of translating things into your native language in your head first before re-translating them back into the target language, something that you simply can’t do if you want to be fluent. Eventually you end up developing your “brain” in that language which doesn’t require you to do that interim translation and everything becomes far more automatic. How long it takes you to get to that stage though varies wildly, although the distance from your native language (in terms of grammatical structure, syntax and script) is usually the primary factor.
It will be interesting to see if this research leads to some developmental techniques that allow us to essentially quieten down parts of our brain in order to aid the learning process. Right now all we know is that some people’s brains begin the switch off period quicker than others and whatever is causing that is the key to accelerating learning. Whether or not that can be triggered by mental exercises or drugs is something we probably won’t know for a while but it’s definitely an area of exciting research possibilities.