Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) and Johns Hopkins University recruited participants to learn a simple visual-motor skill and monitored their progress over the course of six weeks.
During the six-week learning period, the research team examined the participants’ brains with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to track something different than typical fMRI studies.
By graphing the communication between brain areas over time, the researchers were able to identify differences in the brains of people learning the quickest to those learning the slowest. What they found is that the brains of the fastest learners showed gradually decreasing activity in their frontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex, the parts of the brain that manage executive function — our capacity for thinking and planning. The other learners’ brains, in contrast, appeared bogged down in over-thinking, which significantly slowed the learning process.