There is a common misconception that we become smarter as we grow older (that is, until we hit “old age” and brain degeneration kicks in). This misconception is based on the confusion between wisdom and learning ability. As we age, we become wiser through our experiences and the lessons we learn from them. The learning curve in life is pretty much the same as it is for any new subject that we pick up – it increases rapidly initially and slowly begins to plateau. In life, our greatest learning abilities occur in the first three years of life. Thereafter, it begins to slow down.
For a long time, many people thought babies were inanimate blobs that did nothing. They didn’t think there was much going on in inside a baby’s brain either. That was because babies were observers of life rather than participants. In Brain Rules for Baby, John Medina wrote about Andy Meltzoff, a psychologist from the University of Washington, who corrected this notion about babies when he performed a little test on a 42-minute-old baby. Meltzoff stuck his tongue out at the baby and the baby responded in kind by sticking his own tongue out. Meltzoff repeated the action and the baby responded again. Meltzoff discovered that babies could imitate right from the start of their lives. Spurred by this finding, Meltzoff performed another experiment:
“Meltzoff constructed a wooden box, covered by an orange plastic panel, into which he inserted a light. If he touched the panel, the light turned on. Meltzoff put the box between him and a 1-year-old girl, then performed an unusual stunt. He leaned forward and touched his forehead to the top of the box, which immediately lit up its interior. The baby was not allowed to touch the box. Instead, she and her mother were asked to leave the room. A week later, the baby and mother came back to the lab, and Meltzoff set the box between him and the infant. This time he did nothing but watch. The baby didn’t hesitate. As if on cue, she immediately bent forward and touched the box with her forehead. The baby had remembered! She’d had only a single exposure to this event, but she had recalled it perfectly a week later. Babies can do this all over the world.”
Babies are learning rapidly from the moment they are born. They are merely unable to demonstrate this because their motor coordination has not developed sufficiently. Think about how quickly babies learn to speak without having “proper” lessons as we do. If you expose a baby to multiple languages, he can learn them all at the same time – how many adult individuals do you know of that is capable of that? At the same time that babies are learning to talk, they are also learning to walk, and they are also learning about the world around them. Babies can learn as easily as breathing.
Babies are smart. Smarter than we imagined them to be and definitely smarter than we are. We often joke that it is all downhill after the age of 40. Well, in terms of learning ability, it is really all downhill after 6 years of age. If we waited until our children reach school-going age to start teaching them, we are missing out on this huge window of opportunity. Shichida talked about the law of diminishing ability, so what we would really be catching the the tail end of a diminishing ability.