What’s the science behind overthinking something?


Specifically simple physical actions, like walking down a long flight of stairs?

In: Biology

Not a scientist but my teacher, after a good 15 minutes of contemplating, basically said that usually we do it kind of automatically but when we start thinking about it manually we forget to keep doing it for a second

As we learn physical complex actions, we begin to “chunk” them, that is, group them together into what the brain considers a single action. A novice thinks in terms of placing each finger on a piano key, and expert thinks in musical keys and intervals and chord progressions, and other advanced musical things I have no idea about.

Once an action is chunked, the brain loses visibility to the individual details. An expert pianist can play the second inversion of an F minor seventh as a single action without being specifically aware they were playing C Eb F Ab. If that pianist knew there was a thumbtack on Eb, they would have a hard time avoiding it. They would have to start thinking in terms of individual notes, could no longer chunk things together, and their playing would suffer greatly.

A similar thing happens when you are performing repetitive chunked actions. We get a little bored, pay attention to the action, then start thinking inside the chunks, which breaks them. Even worse, we are aware this can happen, so we are actively thinking about not thinking about something, which of course tends to make us think about it more.

Flow state requires you to be detached from thought.

When you overthink, it hinders your ability to tap into the flow of things. Which is why when you overthink things, and let nerves get to you, you mess things up very easily.

What do you mean by overthinking simple physical actions?

If you know what overfitting is in regards to data science, it’s roughly equivalent. Machine learning can be overfit to the data it learns from. The analogy works surprisingly well.

What do you mean? When you begin to manually think about the physical movements that are otherwise automatic like placing your feet onto the next step? Or when you start to manually breathe as you acknowledge it?

Our brains evolved to keep us alive by looking for every little danger. Now that there are fewer predators, our brains are still trying to find where the next danger or attack is, and we get caught up in the whirl of catastrophizing.

This reminds me of the first time I was able to play a song on the piano with two hands. It was at the end of this beginner’s practice book, you learn by playing with one hand and then the other. The last song in the book you’re supposed to play both. I practiced the right hand over and over until I felt like I could play it without thinking about it too much, then I did the same thing with the left hand. As soon as I decided I would play with both, my hands started moving on their own and I kinda freaked out and had to walk away from the piano for a bit, I was sort of surprised, it felt natural and sounded a lot better than just one at a time. It was one of the only times I remember the exact moment I switched from thinking about every detail and just letting my hands do their own thing