When learning a new skill, an over-active brain could hold you back. A study from the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) in collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania and Johns Hopkins University offers new insights into why some people learn faster than others. The results indicate that people whose brains automate processes, instead of involving areas of higher-order thinking, tend to learn faster. The findings suggest that when the brain “overthinks” a problem, it can slow down the learning process.
The researchers monitored the brain activity of study participants who learned to play a simple game. The participants used a hand-held controller to respond to a sequence of color-coded notes. Participants were asked play back the sequences of notes as quickly and accurately as possible. After the initial session, the participants practiced at home and returned for additional assessments two, four, and six weeks later.
Many fMRI studies focus on a small set of brain regions. However, for this study, the researchers considered dynamic brain networks, monitoring 112 brain regions. They graphed the connections, which revealed hotspots of connectivity.
There was a difference in the neural activity between the fastest and slowest learners. Although everyone’s speed increased over the course of the study, some improved immediately and some improved gradually.
During the first few trials, there was a significant amount of brain activity in the visual and motor regions of the brain. As the experiment progressed, these brain regions became essentially autonomous. The fMRI data showed that the participants who learned the fastest had the greatest decrease in neural activity. In particular, brain activity in the frontal cortex and anterior cingulate (areas associated with executive function) diminished in the faster learners.
“When you start to learn a challenging new skill, such as playing a musical instrument, your brain uses many different tools in a desperate attempt to produce anything remotely close to music. With time and practice, fewer tools are needed and core motor areas are able to support most of the behavior,” explained Scott Grafton, a professor in UCSB’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. The study demonstrates that after a certain level of practice, the brain can get in the way of additional learning.
This research is published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.
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