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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Emerging Science Note/Think Less, Learn More

Air Date: Week of

Living on Earth’s Jennifer Chu reports on a study that suggests concentration isn’t always an advantage when performing simple tasks.


CURWOOD: Just ahead: metering mileage to collect a road tax. First, this Note on Emerging Science from Jennifer Chu.


CHU: Modern neuroscience confirms what ancient wisdom has long known: that the secret to mastering a new task may be to think less about it while you’re doing it.

In a recent study, researchers in the United Kingdom found that too much concentration can actually inhibit the learning process, making simple tasks unnecessarily complicated for an integral part of the brain.

Volunteers in the study participated in a six-minute test during which they were asked to press a series of buttons that flashed on a screen in a repetitive pattern. One group of test subjects was encouraged to pick out and remember the pattern, while the other group simply had to relax and not worry about finding a pattern. Researchers monitored the brain activity of both groups during the test using MRI scans. After completing the task, the group that wasn’t consciously looking for the pattern finished 40 milliseconds faster than the group that was trying to discern it.

The findings suggest that those who weren’t concentrating as hard actually learned the pattern more effectively. Researchers explain that this is due to the fact that concentration increases frontal lobe activity. And while the frontal lobe aids in the process of making quick decisions, it may, in fact, hinder certain types of automatic learning such as the ability to determine patterns or sequences. Scientists note, however, that level of concentration needed to learn is entirely dependent on the complexity of the task at hand.

That’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science. I’m Jennifer Chu.

CURWOOD: And you’re listening to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Earl Klugh “Waltz for Debby” BALLADS (Manhattan – 1993)]



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