Staff Perspective: Overthinking - We Are All Mad Here

Staff Perspective: Overthinking - We Are All Mad Here

Have you ever said “I tend to overthink everything?” Most of us fall victim to some degree of overthinking.  We search for more and more information, we focus on the details while losing sight of the big picture or we “choke” under pressure even when we are engaged in doing something we know we are good at.

For instance, I haven’t found anyone who doesn’t want to know the fastest and most efficient way to learn new things. The go-to method is primarily to read copious amounts of articles, gather as much information as possible, have discussions with others, and jam as much information as possible into our brains.  This usually involves a lot of coffee drinking, jogging in place, and memorization.  The goal is to get those synapses firing at warp-speed for as long as it takes and never, ever stop thinking of all the possibilities and where there might be more information on the topic.

We generally start utilizing this approach as an undergrad, and then carry it forward to grad school and professional life, mostly without giving the approach more than a passing glance.  That’s certainly what I, and most of the colleagues I queried, have done in approaching any new subject matter.

That is until I read a quote from Professor Scott Grafton, who led a study on Learning-induced autonomy of sensorimotor system. Here’s what got my attention:

“It’s useful to think of your brain as housing a very large toolkit. 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.”

In other words, good learners don’t overthink what they are trying to learn.

What?  How is that possible? And what does that mean?  Let’s look at how children interact with the world of learning.  At a young age, curiosity is the main focus of our attention.  They tend to not concern themselves with being wrong, and instead are comfortable with guessing.  Over time, the stigma of failing is instilled in us, along with learning vast quantities of concrete knowledge that is labeled either correct or incorrect.  Just like that, our creativity becomes quashed, as we learn to fear being wrong. 

Fast-forward to adulthood, recent neuroscience studies, using MRI and other brain imaging, have strongly suggested is that while acquiring knowledge and accumulating information is a great thing, it has a tipping point at which we become stuck and unable to move forward.  Is information gathering important to making decisions?  Of course, but it is equally, and more important to act on information, moving forward.  It’s only through the action that we can determine if more information is needed, but we have “unstuck” ourselves in the process.  We need to believe we have choices, yet, if we have gathered too much information, we become overwhelmed, our decision-making abilities shut down and we freeze in place.

In a study from UC Santa Barbara, the researchers observed the functions of the prefrontal cortex, which supports explicit memory, where you recall information and consciously use sensory processes to perform tasks and implicit memory, an unconscious process relying on previous experiences to perform tasks. When the researchers actively disrupted the prefrontal cortex functions with explicit memory, they found that the decision-making process actually improved in accuracy. Participants were more accurate when they simply guessed and didn’t actively think through their decision 

Having given many trainings in evidence-based treatments that are new to most of the clinician trainees, I frequently hear “Ok, this is an approach I want to try.”  In follow-up months after the training however, most of them have not put this new practice into action, instead declaring they “need more information” or “I need to read the manual a few more times before I try it.”  What the researchers have found is both simple and maybe the hardest thing of all, but they agree on the main point that is key to all knowledge. At some point, we have to stop taking in information, stop worrying about failing and trust our gut

In studies with athletes who “choke” during big games, even after practicing for years, the answer again lay in teaching them to stop overthinking and trusting that they already know the answer.

Imagine someone asks you “How do you walk up and down stairs?”  It’s something you are able to do easily, but if you begin to think too much about the actual actions it takes to do this like how much do you bend your knee or which part of your foot touches the step, the likelihood is that you may have problems the next time you walk up or down stairs!

If you’re still here, chances are it’s because you recognize that you or someone in your life, is an overthinker.  Now you want to know “What do we do about this?”  So, let’s summarize what the studies have suggested.  The first is to recognize your fear of failure and realize you’ve got to move from the information gathering phase into decision-making.  Understand that making an informed decision does not mean you have to stay with that decision, but rather that it will motivate you and give you greater understanding of what you need to do or discover next to take a new approach. Stop asking an endless array of people for their opinion, expert or otherwise, and ask yourself if possibly you are rationalizing avoiding action by telling yourself you don’t have enough information yet.  Keep your goal in mind:  is it to acquire vast quantities of never-ending information or is it to have enough information to allow you to begin a new treatment, deliver a presentation, or make movement toward a life decision?

Above all, stop, breathe and let your intuition or “gut” guide your answers to these questions.

The opinions in CDP Staff Perspective blogs are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Science or the Department of Defense.

Laura Copland, MA, LCMHC is the Senior PTSD Treatment Trainer at the Center for Deployment Psychology (CDP) at Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland and a National Cognitive Processing Therapy Trainer.


Out of control:  Diminished prefrontal activity coincides with impaired motor performance due to choking under pressure
Lee, T.G., Grafton, S.T.
NeuroImage, 30 October 2014

The Effects of Incentive Framing on Performance Decrements for Large Monetary Outcomes: Behavioral and Neural Mechanisms
Vikram S. Chib, Shinsuke Shimojo and John P. O'Doherty
Journal of Neuroscience 5 November 2014, 34 (45) 14833-14844

Learning-induced autonomy of sensorimotor systems
Bassett, D.S.; Yang M.; Wymbs, N.F., Grafton, S.T.
Nature Neuroscience18, 744–751(2015) 06 April 2015