Tag Archives: problem-solving

What Is the Origin of Learning?

learning in human evolution

« We are here to learn. » This is what one of my friends says when he relapses and commits another alcohol-related blunder (don’t worry; he doesn’t read this blog).

That remark has always puzzled me. What exactly do we need to learn and for what purpose? But when you think about it, his assertion has a second meaning. Maybe my friend means that learning is the purpose itself, that we are born to learn.

According to brain scientists, such a view is dead on the money. The human brain comes pre-packaged with a level of flexibility that impels learning.

All living beings follow their genetic code. For example, moths are drawn to candle flames because they’re hardwired to navigate by the light of the moon; they’re unable to change with experience.

But a few species have been able to detach themselves from that programming, and rely on experience to survive and reproduce. We can say that learning was born the day an organism managed to override the primal instructions of its DNA, and respond to its environment on the fly.

How have humans become expert learners?

Essentially by being born prematurely, before their brain is ready. As Doctor Medina explains, if the brain completed its development inside the womb as expected, the baby’s head would be too big.

So our species have become peak learners because after birth our neurons, instead of slowing down, continue to multiply like crazy. Did you know that a 3-year-old’s brain is twice as active as a normal adult’s?

All and all, my friend is totally right. We’re biologically built to learn. The brain has the incredible chance to test drive its environment while under construction. That cerebral flexibility gives us the opportunity to map the world in real time and adjust to circumstances on the spot.

Knowing how to quickly detect opportunities and dangers, and adapt accordingly is what a peak learner is all about, isn’t it?