As a species, humans stand out for superior cognitive capacities, including improved working memory and abstract representation. However, these abilities evolved, develop, and are generally utilized within a context of cultural transmission and ongoing interaction with the environment. This raises two complementary questions: To what extent does culture scaffold effective employment of our cognitive capacities, and to what extent is learning possible in culture’s absence? Experiment 1 demonstrates that participants given a verbal “hint” can use working memory to optimize rewards in a simple sequential learning task, whereas even after hundreds of trials of experience, those not given a hint can only learn the task suboptimally. Experiment 2 demonstrates similar results for hierarchical rule abstraction. In these experiments, hints are akin to cultural scaffolding, and their influence on learning helps identify how our ability to spontaneously leverage our unique cognitive capacities is limited in isolation from culture.