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Overthinking Means Slow Learning?

Scientists discover that individuals with more brain activity learn slower than those with less brain activity. So stop thinking and learn! Exploring the idea that over thinkers like me, may learn new tasks more slowly and be less successful at those tasks than those who don’t analyze and evaluate their every move. Scientists have known for a while that cognitive control from the frontal cortex can have a depressing effect on our ability to learn new tasks. This is probably because that brain region is responsible for problem solving, planning and execution, and its “top down”regulation of our behavior can lead us to make things more complicated for ourselves than they really are.

Children learn way faster than adults because they are not subject to this cortical control.They CAN’T over think because their judgy frontal cortex hasn’t been fully developed yet! This is one reason why kids are more creative and frequently take risks that an adult probably wouldn’t.When humans are exposed to a new task almost our entire brain is active and desperately trying to make sense and associations from the new input. As we get better at the task and “figure it out” this global network activity gets pruned to only what we need specifically for task performance (eg. motor and visual cortices).  How quickly this specification happens corresponds to how “quickly” we learn the task.Researchers at several universities, looked at this process across the whole brain and recorded which regions maintained their connections and activity, and which ones didn’t. These data were recorded as fMRI scans of whole brain as subjects learned a simple musical computer game.

The scientists were hoping to visualize the changes that happened as people learned, but what they didn’t expect is that subject data would organize itself into two categories: “fast” learners and “slow” learners.Those who learned the musical video game very quickly showed rapid drop off of global brain activation. The “slow” learners maintained more global brain activity over the six week trial and showed prolonged involvement of associative regions of the cortex. This lead researchers to conclude that “over thinking” – by maintaining vigilance, monitoring errors,and frequently making associative judgements – makes it more difficult for individuals to “transform a task from slow and challenging to fast and automatic”. More studies are needed to truly understand this process but it very well could be that analyzing your thinking about thinking about what you are trying to learn isn’t doing you any favors and making it harder for you to be successful. So get out of your own way, stop second-guessing and re-optimizing everything and just let it happen!!