Why Is Learning So Hard?

Do you have trouble learning things? Maybe over thinking is getting in your way!

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Have you ever tried really, really hard to learn something new, but it seemed like the harder you tried, the more difficult it was to learn? The good news is that it probably wasn’t your imagination: you might have actually been trying too hard. As backwards as it sounds, a new study confirms that “over thinking” a problem can make it harder to solve. Researchers at University of California, Santa Barbara, looked at the neural activity of people who were tasked with learning to play a simple new game. Some picked up the game quickly, while others took longer to master it.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), researchers were able to watch their brain activity in real-time. The neural activity in the “faster” group moved from more complex neurological patterns to more organized and simpler patterns as they mastered the new skill. The activity in the “slower” group continued to stay more active and complex as they struggled to learn the rules of the game. Their research, published this week in the online journal Nature Neuroscience, provides a new level of insight into what happens in the brain as we learn something new. They were essentially able to watch the learning process happen on the neurological level in real-time as the participants’ brains reorganized the flow of activity while they mastered a new skill.

Scott Grafton, a professor at UCSB and lead researcher on the study explained: “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. What our laboratory study shows is that beyond a certain amount of practice, some of these cognitive tools might actually be getting in the way of further learning.”

Do you tend to “over think” problems when trying to solve them? Will this research make you approach problem-solving from a different perspective in the future? Share your experiences in the comments below.

By Jack J. Shamama

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