Learning a new skill is easier when it is related to an ability we already have. For example, a trained pianist can learn a new melody easier than learning how to hit a tennis serve.
Scientists from the Center of the Neural Basis of Cognition -- a joint program between Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh -- have discovered a fundamental constraint in the brain that may explain why this happens. Published as the cover story in the August 28, 2014, issue of Nature, they found for the first time that there are limitations on how adaptable the brain is during learning and that these restrictions are a key determinant for whether a new skill will be easy or difficult to learn. Understanding the ways in which the brain's activity can be 'flexed' during learning could eventually be used to develop better treatments for stroke and other brain injuries.