Penn study finds faster learners don't overthink

Having trouble remembering all the elements of the proper golf swing? Getting stuck while trying to pick out that tune on the piano?

Maybe you're thinking too much.

That is the implication of a new study published Monday by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, the University of California Santa Barbara, and Johns Hopkins University.

On four occasions over a six-week period, the scientists used MRI machines to measure the brain activity of people as they tapped out various 10-digit sequences on a keyboard.

In general, those who learned the sequences faster were also quicker to disengage the brain regions involved in executive function - that is, the neurons that we use for actively deciding to do something.

The research, published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, required some sophisticated math to tease out the interplay between 112 "nodes" or mini-regions of the brain, said lead author Danielle Bassett, an assistant professor of engineering at Penn.

But she sees the study results, to some degree, as a no-brainer. A flutist and pianist, she can remember plenty of times when a teacher has told her to stop thinking so hard.

"Sometimes your brain can actually get in the way when the information is actually already in your motor memory," said Bassett, the lead author of the study and a 2014 winner of a MacArthur Foundation "genius" fellowship. "If you stop thinking so hard, then you actually perform better."

The regions of the brain that became disengaged as study participants got better at the keystroke task are called the frontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex.

Bassett and senior author Scott Grafton, professor of psychological and brain sciences at UC Santa Barbara, were careful to say that their results might not apply to other types of learning.

They also stressed that their main finding was a correlation between the ability to disengage from certain cognitive processes and faster learning - not proof that one causes the other.

Still, they seem to be onto something, said Neil Albert, a visiting assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Colgate University, who was not involved with the work.

Albert said the results of the new study were consistent with previous research he helped conduct while at the University of Birmingham in England. When scientists there used magnetic stimulation to inhibit regions of the brain involved in executive function, people were better at recalling how to perform simple motor tasks.

The big questions are how many types of learning work this way, and whether slower learners can be trained to speed up by disengaging, Albert said.

"I think there is something more general to this," Albert said. "But exactly how far it goes, that's a really interesting question that I think we'll grapple with for a while."

For example, this notion might help explain why children are better than adults at learning a new language, he said. They can absorb basic building blocks without getting bogged down in analysis.

"Children don't have the high-level cognitive resources that adults have," Albert said.

In the new study, scientists measured the learning speed of 20 men and women, average age 24. The participants learned to type six different 10-digit sequences that contained the numbers 1 through 5 (such as 1341254523).

They practiced each one hundreds of times over the course of six weeks, both at home on a laptop and also in the lab, while in the MRI machine.

Initially, each sequence took several seconds to execute, but eventually the fastest learners were ripping off each set of 10 digits in less than a second, Grafton said.

"If you think about playing a musical instrument, learning to play an arpeggio," Grafton said, "there's a point at which you don't want to think about each individual note."

For everyone who participated in the study, the connection between the brain's motor and visual systems tended to weaken over time as they typed in the digits. The researchers think that makes sense because, after a while, the participants no longer needed to look at the screen to know which keys to press.

But the weakening of that connection did not predict who was fast or slow at learning. Learning speed was connected only to their ability to disengage from higher-order thinking.

This sort of concept is popularly invoked all the time in sports, when players talk about letting their muscle memory take over and being "in the zone."

Grafton and Bassett say their work lends some credence to that idea.

Both scientists mentioned golf in explaining their results. Which might remind some of a line uttered by Chevy Chase's character in the 1980 movie Caddyshack:

"Stop thinking. Let things happen. And be the ball."

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