Study Suggests Thinking Less Is Key to Faster Learning

New research shows sometimes our own brains get in the way of acquiring new skills

girl with book
Simon Jarratt/Corbis

According to new research, the fastest learners follow an old adage—"Don’t overthink it."  In a new study that analyzed brain activity of subjects while they tried to master a new task, scientists found the people who got it most quickly were the ones who shut off their higher-order, analytical cognitive processes.

The participants were given a simple game to play, which involved tapping a variety of ten-note sequences onto a keyboard;  scientists used an fMRI to monitor where are how much the participants’ neurons were firing as they played. 

“Counterintuitive as it may seem, the participants who showed decreased neural activity learned the fastest,” Science Daily reports.

From Science Daily:

The critical distinction is in areas not related to seeing the cues or playing the notes: the frontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex.

These cognitive control centers are thought to be most responsible for what is known as executive function. “This neurological trait is associated with making and following through with plans, spotting and avoiding errors and other higher-order types of thinking,” [study author Scott] Grafton said. “In fact executive function is necessary for complex tasks but might actually be a hindrance to mastering simple ones.”

This research calls to mind familiar examples from outside the lab—athletes and musicians, for instance, describe “flow states,” in which they stop thinking and instead perform “in the zone.” It also helps to “explain why children are better than adults at learning a new language,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reports. “They can absorb basic building blocks without getting bogged down in analysis. ‘Children don’t have the high-level cognitive resources that adults have,’ [neuroscientist Neil] Albert said.”

You know what they say: just do it. 

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