Thinking about Overthinking: Research Shows It Can Hinder Learning

Article by Becky Errico | 500 words

Overthinking isn’t just a cause of stress or sleepless nights: it can inhibit how fast someone learns something new, according to recent research.

The Setup of the Overthinking Study

Overthinking explosion


In a recent article featured in the Nature Neuroscience Journal, researchers provide evidence that when people overthink, it slows the learning process down. Because of that, they learn and master simple tasks more slowly than individuals who keep their thinking in check. This discovery was made when the researchers conducted a study that ended up showing a wide spectrum on the learning curve of its participants.

The study was carried out by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, University of California Santa Barbara and Johns Hopkins University, according to an article from Forbes. The researchers got a group of participants together and showed them how to play a computer game. Then the participants were told to practice at home and come in periodically over six weeks so the researchers could observe their progress in playing the game. During this time, the researchers noticed that some were mastering the game faster than others were.

Scanning an Overthinking Brain

To figure out why this was happening, the researchers looked at the brain scans of the participants that were taken at the beginning of the study. They looked at the entire brain using fMRI scans. An fMRI or functional magnetic resonance imaging measures the amount of blood flow in various sections of the brain. Increased blood flow in one section of the brain is a sign that it’s active. The fact that they were looking at the whole brain was an important difference from other fMRIs, which usually only focus on certain parts of our thinking muscle. They wanted to see the whole brain and the connections that were made during the process of learning the game, Forbes reports.

According to The Huffington Post, the difference came down to which parts of the brain were engaged. Those who were progressing more slowly in the game were using nonessential parts while learning how to play. Specifically, they were using two sections of the brain for longer periods of time than those who were progressing in the game at a faster pace. These two sections were the frontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex, which are mostly used for more complex functions like organizing or planning. They are great for the higher functions of the brain but can get in the way of simple tasks. Danielle Bassett, one of the bioengineer researchers behind the study, told Huffington Post that “in some cases, disconnecting brain networks is as or more important than engaging them.”

The next step is for researchers to examine why some people are better equipped than others when it comes to turning off the unnecessary sections that make them overthink. Until then, as Forbes said, this could mean that the best thing to do when going around and around in your head is to pause, calm down and see where your mind goes naturally.

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