Tennis player Arthur Ashe famously described the backlash of over-thinking with the phrase, “Paralysis by analysis.” Neuroscientists from Georgetown University have found that in certain situations being 'mindful' can inhibit someone’s ability to learn automatic skills. 

The findings were presented at the Neuroscience 2013 conference in San Diego on November 12, 2013. The study's senior investigator, Darlene Howard, Ph.D., is a professor in the department of psychology and member of the Georgetown Center for Brain Plasticity and Recovery.

Unfortunately, there are many different definitions of mindfulness. One of the most widely recognized definitions is by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn who defines mindfulness as: “Paying attention, in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” For more on the definition of mindfulness please check out this link to the Mindfulness Research Guide (MRG).

For the Georgetown study, the researchers wanted to explore how a tendency to be ‘mindful’ or ‘think about your thinking’ might actually impede implicit learning, which happens in a ‘non-thinking’ state. The study was designed to see how individual differences in mindfulness affected implicit learning. "Our theory is that one learns habits—good or bad—implicitly, without thinking about them. So we wanted to see if mindfulness impeded implicit learning,” said Chelsea Stillman, the study's lead author is a psychology PhD student who works in Georgetown’s Cognitive Aging Laboratory.

Implicit memory is a type of memory in which previous experiences and practice allow you to perform a task without conscious awareness of how you are doing it. Implicit learning happens automatically and unconsciously through conditioning and practice. On the flip side, explicit learning requires the conscious, intellectual grasp of specific knowledge or procedures you could memorize.

Implicit learning requires the person learning to actually perform and practice a task to master it. Things like riding a bike, serving a tennis ball and tying your shoelaces all require implicit memory. Things like telling someone where you were born, your mother’s maiden name, or your cell phone number require explicit memory.

Over-Thinking Can Impede Implicit Learning

The Georgetown researchers found that being overly mindful can prevent the formation of bad habits, but unfortunately, a high level of mindfulness appears to make it difficult to create good habits, too. This paradox requires that you consciously flip from being mindful and zooming-in your focus to flex explicit memory—while also being able to zoom-out, trust your intuition and flex your implicit memory. Balancing explicit and implicit memory based skills is the key to creating flow and superfluidity.

The final scene in Star Wars (episode four) is a perfect example of where explicit and implicit memory converge. In the scene, Luke Skywalker hears Obi-Wan Kenobe saying “Use the force.” Luke turns off his targeting computer—which would represent explicit memory—and uses the implicit memory of his instincts (the force) to fire the hole-in-one that detonates the Death Star.  

As a coach, I have noticed that a lot of highly driven type-A, super-achievers have trouble ‘unclamping’ their cognitive control which sabotages their ability to optimize implicit memory skills. Part of effective mindfulness training is learning how to 'let go', ‘unclamp’ your thinking, and go with the flow. The implicit memory system does not learn through cerebral cognition. It most likely learns through cerebellar plasticity via the caudate nucleus when people practice, practice, practice.

To test who would perform best on an implicit memory visual task the Georgetown researchers used a test called the TLT. This test is a sequential learning task that doesn’t require complex motor skills.

In the TLT, participants see four open circles, then they see two red dots appear, and are asked to respond when they see a green dot appear. Unbeknownst to them, the location of the first red dot predicts the location of the green target. Participants learn implicitly where the green target will appear, and they become faster and more accurate in their responses with practice.

The researchers found that people reporting low on the mindfulness scale tended to learn TLT better. Their reaction times were quicker in targeting events that occurred more often within a context of preceding events. "The very fact of paying too much attention or being too aware of stimuli coming up in these tests might actually inhibit implicit learning," Stillman says.

"That suggests that mindfulness may help prevent formation of automatic habits—which is done through implicit learning—because a mindful person is aware of what they are doing. This outcome might be surprising until one considers that behavioral and neuroimaging studies suggest that mindfulness can undercut the automatic learning processes—the kind that lead to development of good and bad habits,” concludes Stillman.

Conclusion: Changing Habits Requires a Dual-Pronged Approach

Chapter ten of my book, The Athlete’s Way is titled “Sticking With It” and gives practical advice for breaking bad habits and creating better habits through a combination of explicit and implicit learning techniques. In the book I create a split-brain model that refers to the unconscious ‘non-thinking’ cerebellum (down brain) as the seat of implicit memory and the cerebrum (up brain) as the seat of explicit learning and memory.

If you’d like to watch a quick two minute cartoon explaining how the cerebellum works in conjunction with the cerebrum please click here.

The Georgetown study confirms that it is counterproductive to be overly cerebral when trying to create good habits, but that everyone needs to flex some mental muscle to break bad habits. Taking a dual-pronged approach that combines conscious willpower with unconscious conditioning and practice is the key to making healthier habits a part of your daily routine.

If you'd like to read more on this topic please check out my Psychology Today blogs: "Mindfulness Made Simple", "No. 1 Reason Practice Makes Perfect", "Why Does Overthinking Cause Athletes to Choke?", "How Does Meditation Reduce Anxiety at a Neural Level", "Toward a New Split Brain Model: Up Brain-Down Brain" and "The Neuroscience of Superfluidity."

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