The Neuroscience of Taking a Leap

What is it like to learn something new? While I have learned many things as an adult—coding and skiing are the two that come to mind first—I haven’t been a student in a formal educational setting since finishing undergrad at 22-years old. There are many ways that my current self feels different from the 22-year old version of me that was taking classes at UCLA. Stronger sense of self, a better and more nuanced understanding of the ways the ‘real world’ works, tons of life experiences, more thoughtful communication and empathy skills, better self-care habits and a healthier lifestyle. Things just keep getting better. So school should be better, right? Yet, adult learners often struggle in ways that younger learners do not.

I had an early observation about this while I was in college. One of my roles while working for my college’s outdoor adventure department was facilitating programs at the ropes course on campus. We had many student groups who used the facility, in addition to youth summer camp programs and corporate team building events. One of the most frequently used elements of the course was the Leap of Faith, a telephone pole that participants would climb, carefully balance on top of the wobbly pole, and then jump from the pole to a trapeze swing several feet away, all while on belay. I observed a range of responses to this challenge from participants of all ages, from eagerness to indifference to abject terror, however, there were patterns in how each age group responded to the challenge.

Elementary school students demonstrated the least fear. I remember belaying whole groups of eight- and nine-year-olds who completed the task with total indifference. Without complaint or reservation, like little lemmings they lined up and jumped off the pole, just completing another task that an adult had told them to. Brush your teeth. Clean up your room. Do your homework. Jump off a thirty-foot tall telephone pole and grab a trapeze that looks impossibly far away. They seemed to have trust in us, trust that we wouldn’t tell them to do something that they couldn’t or shouldn’t do. And they seemed to have trust in themselves, that they would try this thing and succeed or that at least if they didn’t succeed that the consequences would be insignificant. To be nine-years-old is to inhabit a world full of things you can’t do. Algebra, driving a car, roasting a chicken, amongst many others. Succeeding or failing is more situational than definitive. A nine-year-old is not a person who can’t do algebra, just one who can’t do algebra yet. The emotional and identity costs of trying and failing are low.

With our corporate groups, people were usually between the ages of about 25- and 50-years old. We would budget the time needed for a group of twelve adult participants to complete the Leap of Faith as double or triple the time needed for a youth group. Physically, it’s not much more challenging than climbing a ladder, but the mental and emotional anguish I saw people experience betrayed how different this experience was for the adults. There was lots of crying. Many people refused to even attempt it, to put a harness on and step onto the first steps just inches off the ground. People stood at the top of the pole for five, ten, thirty minutes contemplating their jump. People’s bodies would shake in response to the fear. Halfway up they would change their mind and start climbing backwards down the pole.

I learned a lot about persuasion as a 19-year old coaxing thirty-something Jenna from Accounting to jump for the trapeze. And I also found myself wondering about why adults responded so differently than the kids had. In neuroscience classes, I was learning about the structure and function of the brain, specifically the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that is most famous for not being fully developed until our mid-twenties. It’s one of the evolutionarily ‘newer’ parts of our brain and is especially well-developed in humans as compared to other animals.

Its functions include “abilities to differentiate among conflicting thoughts, determine good and bad, better and best, same and different, future consequences of current activities, working toward a defined goal, prediction of outcomes, expectation based on actions, and social “control” (the ability to suppress urges that, if not suppressed, could lead to socially unacceptable outcomes)” (Science of Psychology). Or more briefly, it helps us predict the future consequences of our behavior and choose the options that are the best for ourselves and our community. An asset in most context.

How might this part of our brain affect our willingness to jump for a trapeze or ability to learn something new? A young person with a brain that doesn’t perceive the future consequences of their choices, and doesn’t effectively choose the best options from a range of what’s available has little reason to opt out of taking the leap. They’re in the moment. As they climb each step on the pole, their evidence that they can do it is the fact that they are doing it, the possibility of a negative future outcome doesn’t distract them from the moment at hand. And they aren’t wasting energy or focus on entertaining their other options (climbing down, not doing it at all, stopping midway to cry).

It’s likely that there is an evolutionary advantage to being a young person who doesn’t have a fully functioning prefrontal cortex. Your main focus as a child and adolescent is accumulating experiences and knowledge. Having ‘good judgment’ at this stage might be counter-productive if it limits your access to new experiences or your openness to failure. The late development of this part of our brains is likely a ‘feature’ rather than a ‘bug.’ As an adult learner, I worry about the potential for this part of my brain to be counter-productive when trying to learn something. I worry about the way my brain might be biased against new experiences, taking risks and exposure to failure.

In my first week at AC4D, our instructors have been giving us guidance to ‘trust the process,’ to steel ourselves for harsh, honest criticism, to not be overly fixated on the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ ways of doing things, to focus on the process rather than the destination. They’ve been recommending that we turn off our prefrontal cortex and engage habits of mind that were more familiar to us as children.

Already there have been plenty of opportunities to take risks and to fall short. Interviewing ten people in 2 hours to research the food truck industry looked more like six for my group (or maybe five or four and a half, depending on how you counted). Defining 300 unique ideas that would solve a problem. (We got quite a bit closer to that one.) Drawing vignettes of several of our ideas. (None ended up being something I felt particularly proud of.) Each of these experiences evoked reservations, self-doubt and vulnerability that I likely did not experience as a kid learning new things. I found myself distracted by wondering, “Am I good at this? Am I ever going to be good at this?”

As I sketched I fought to impulse to look at other people’s work as a means of affirming that I was doing it right. As we put ideas on post-it notes I found myself fixating on the number of ideas generated rather than just being in the moment as we developed ideas. As I transcribed interviews I scrupulously recorded every syllable because it seemed like the ‘best’ way to do it, efficiency be damned. As the weeks continue I’m going to practice self-awareness around these paradoxically unproductive prefrontal competencies, to lean into the ambiguity, live in the moment, trust myself, and leave behind the fear of failure that keeps us from taking big leaps.