More Cognitive Diversity – Fast & Slow Learners

by Edward Henkler on May 26, 2015

The 7-Apr-15 Philadelphia Inquirer included an article reporting the results of a study which measured brain activity as participants completed a relatively simple task. The study reminds us that people think differently (cognitive diversity) but an individual can also exhibit different cognitive behavior under different circumstances. The participants were asked to type out 6 different ten-digit sequences on a keyboard.

Quoting directly from the article, “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 <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.”

Danielle Bassett (UPenn; Inquirer; 7-Apr-15)

The phrase “thinking too hard” intrigues me as I think most of us fall victim to overthinking activities. When you’re learning a new skill or attempting to perfect it, perhaps overthinking has value. You examine all of the individual elements and how they fit together. You may practice individual elements until they become a part of you, then you begin to link the individual elements together. Eventually a previously impossible activity has become second nature.

The study’s authors admitted that much more research was required to apply their observations more practically but I see many parallels with everyday activities. I wrote previously about how experienced drivers often engage in very creative thinking while driving. This occurs as they can switch off the executive functions while completing a very familiar activity. Golfers all know that you can break your swing down while practicing but you better switch to no more than one or two swing thoughts when playing. I can also relate to Danielle Bassett’s reference to overthinking when playing a musical instrument. If I’m learning difficult new music, I start by practicing very short passages and building up to longer and longer sequences. When I’m actually performing, there would be no way to read and think about individual notes…but there is no longer a need.

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