We all establish habits of thinking; indeed a pattern of thinking about and doing things in a habitual way is critical to the process of learning. To establish neural pathways, some repetition of thought is required to embed the thought and/or action. Students with high intellectual ability may not require as much repetition as others in order to learn; however some repetition is required to establish neural pathways. As neuroscientists often say, "Neurons that fire together, wire together", thus creating and strengthening habits of thought and the resultant actions.
Because minds with heightened ability tend to think a lot, a pattern of 'overthinking' can easily become established. This may be problematic when convergent thinking is required to eliminate several possibilities and select a single option. When students are asked to select the best answer from a limited number of options - for example from a multiple choice test or questionnaire – high ability students easily fall into the trap of 'overthinking' the question, generating more possibilities than they have been presented with and taking far longer to sort through and select a single response. By 'overthinking' the question, high-ability students may over-complicate a question, discarding a seemingly simple possibility and trying to generate other, more complex responses.
It seems to high-ability students unlikely that such an apparently simple response could be what a teacher is expecting. High-ability students may establish a pattern of overthinking which uses up far more time than they have available if they are to complete the multiple-choice test in the time allowed. As a result, students who 'overthink' may fail to complete questionnaires and tests within the prescribed time.
When high-ability students who are imaginative (and not all are) have also established a pattern of overthinking, this combination of thinking patterns can have a significant impact: Imagination + Overthinking = Anxiety. When one is perceptive and aware of possibilities; when one can imagine what might happen (especially if one has established a habit of thinking about negative consequences and is in the habit of catastrophizing); if one thinks over and over these negative possibilities, the stress hormone, cortisol, is generated, reinforcing the emotional arousal that takes place whenever one considers the disasters that are considered likely to occur.
Norman Doidge, author of "The Brain that Changes Itself" refers to the 'plastic paradox', explaining that although the brain has the capacity to establish new neural pathways, one of the ways in which the human brain paradoxically 'changes itself', is to deepen an existing neural pathway, embedding an established habit of thought and reinforcing resultant behaviour. Humans have the capacity to establish patterns of behaviour and – especially those who have a tendency to overthink – can become inflexible in their established patterns of thought. The capacity to problem-solve requires that individuals think about situations in different ways; establish novel ways of thinking; encourage reflection about their thinking in order to generate new neural connections while creating varied, flexible patterns of productive thinking.
© Michele Juratowitch