Why Overthinking Is Holding You Back

04/15/2015 07:38 am ET | Updated May 14, 2015
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Do you have a hard time quieting your thoughts and keeping your brain from going into overdrive? In addition to making you more stressed and anxious, new research suggests that a hyperactive mind could hinder your ability to perform simple tasks.

In a study published last week in the journal Nature Neuroscience, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania found that people whose brains used unnecessary thinking processes while trying to learn a basic task were slower to master it than people whose brains only used essential functions.

The researchers measured connections between different brain networks in study participants learning to play a computer game. After being taught how to play, the participants took the game home to practice. Several weeks later, they returned to the lab to show researchers how well they'd mastered the game during their home practice sessions.

While some of the participants picked up the task almost immediately, others improved slowly over the course of the study. To figure out why, the researchers analyzed participants' brain scans and identified which parts of their brains had been active when they were first exposed to the game. What they found was that people whose brains used nonessential parts while learning how to play the game had a harder time becoming proficient in it. That is, they seemed to have trouble learning the task because they were overthinking it.

"In some cases, disconnecting brain networks is as or more important than engaging them," Danielle Bassett, a bioengineer at UPenn and the study's lead author, told The Huffington Post.

The slow learners kept two "cognitive control centers" -- the frontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex -- active longer than participants who learned more quickly. These parts of the brain, which are usually used for devising and carrying out plans, high-level thinking and avoiding of errors, can be helpful when tackling complex tasks. But they can be hurdles to completing very basic ones.

Scientists aren't yet sure how people can shut down these strategic brain regions when they don't need them, but further research into this phenomenon may yield benefits for natural chronic overthinkers.

"We are very interested to see whether we can train people to disconnect different portions of their brain on demand," Bassett said. "This could lead to new training regimens prior to intensive learning experiences in classrooms or employee training."

In the meantime, next time you're trying to learn something simple, remember that it can help to relax and not engage in strategic thinking. Put more simply, as Bassett advised: "Chill out!"

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