QuestionCan you think too hard?
Hopes&Fears answers questions with the help of people who know what they're talking about. Today, we're wondering if you can think yourself sick.
The question plagued many of the experts we reached out to. “I don’t know what this question means,” one said. Another simply responded, “That’s ridiculous.” This reaction struck us here at Hopes&Fears as surprising. Humans may be the thinking animal, but just like any activity makes demands of us, so does mental engagement. The brain is a muscle, after all. Can spending too much time with your thoughts be strenuous or dangerous? Can specific ways of thinking harm us? And how does information overload factor into all of this? Some experts—smart thinkers who themselves know how to step away from their own thoughts sometimes—got us some answers.
Dr. Ralph Diner
medical psychologist, public speaker,
recipient of the Bronze Service Award from the President of the United States for his pro bono advisory with hospice and his crisis management work at Virginia Tech subsequent to the traumatic shooting event
In a way, that is like asking why people have trouble with too much heart beating. The heart is built to beat and pump blood. The brain is the physical machine of the mind (as well as many other things)—and the mind is “built” to think. To carry this one step further; just as the heart stopping is death I believe people fear “not thinking” is death. So in a way over thinking may be, by extension, in some cases; an unconscious reaction to the fear of death.
One can most definitely think “too hard.” Thinking takes energy. Energy in the brain is supplied by glucose. When faced with problems (even non stressful problems like solving a crossword puzzle) we use energy in the specific areas of the brain need to solve that particular sort of problem. We are using glucose to solve that problem. Like gasoline in a car; we can run low in our fuel supply. The difference between the brain running low on fuel and a car running low on fuel is twofold. A car can immediately resupply, and; running out of fuel in a car won’t damage the engine.
In the brain when we deplete glucose it takes time to re-establish normal levels. During that period we may be exhausted. Research shows that a low level of glucose affects the ability to think and remember.
As if that weren’t enough, when these problems that come from “thinking too hard” turn into “thinking too much” we may disturb and interrupt sleep. Sleep serves many functions. Besides rest and recharging the fuels of the brain, it also appears to perform the very important function of “pruning” new neuronal connections (i.e. memories) made that day. Memory consists of three processes: acquisition, consolidation and recall. The process of sleep seems to consolidate important memories and delete less important ones. Studies show that people who learned something new (acquisition) and had a nap or a night’s sleep did better (consolidation and recall) on test of that new subject matter than those tested without a night’s sleep.
There is also an association between insomnia and Asperger’s, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, depression and even more frightening is the finding that chronic sleep disruption caused by work, stress and insomnia may result in earlier onset of Alzheimer’s. Sleep deprived mice (and anyone who ever missed a night’s sleep knows) have learning difficulties (acquisition and/or recall.)
Too much thinking or thinking too hard seems to detract from optimal brain use, lead to physical problems and perhaps hold us back on the personal evolution of our consciousness. True creative thinking and epiphany seems to come from going outside the box of Aristotelian thinking. Reducing thought “noise” seems to encourage breakthrough and the advancement of consciousness.
Thinking too scattered
— A study at the University of London found that multitasking during IQ tests lowered scores by as much as 15 points
— Research at Stanford University shows that those who shift between multiple forms of electronic communication on a regular basis are less skilled at focusing attention and remembering
— Those who multitask heavily have less density in the anterior cingulate cortex, where empathy and emotional control are located in the brain
Andy Hahn Psy.D.
licensed clinical psychologist, founder of Guided Self Healing (GSH), an energy psychospiritual mindbody framework for healing our deepest trauma.
Information overload is a kind of trauma. Trauma occurs not only when something is too bad. It can also occur when something's too much. As with any kind of trauma, when you are overwhelmed you freeze and get stuck.
Thinking too hard can cause stress, even if it is not a result of or doesn't result in trauma. You then try to master what you couldn't handle in the first place. Thinking too hard can cause stress even if it doesn't result in trauma.
VP of Research and Development for LearningRx, co-author, with Dr. Ken Gibson, of Unlock the Einstein Inside: Applying New Brain Science to Wake Up the Smart in Your Child
Yes, you can think "too hard." Unfortunately, the frustration of feeling as though you're working too hard to process, memorize or recall information leads kids and adults with weak cognitive skills to become unmotivated or use too much energy to get tasks done.
If you can train the brain and strengthen these 'thinking skills,' you can get a lot more done with less energy. Thinking smarter, not harder, can increase productivity, decrease frustration and boost confidence.
positive psychology expert, contributor to Live Happy Magazine, author of The Happiness Advantage and Before Happiness, one of the world's leading experts on "human potential", winner of several distinguished teaching awards at Harvard University
The brain has a limited amount of resources, so when it gets overwhelmed, it prioritizes processing the negative. So the more the overload, the more negative your world appears. In Before Happiness, I suggested a 5% noise canceling experiment: decrease the noise in your life by just 5% and your brain can use those free resources to start seeing the positives and meaningful parts of your life. Turning off the radio in the car for the first five minutes, muting the commercials during one show a day, meditating for just five minutes a day—all of these help your brain cancel the noise and find the signal.
[When we do not sleep enough,] our brains perceives the lack of sleep as a threat, so it uses its limited resources to scan for threats during the day. In an interesting study, you remember 70% of negative words, but only 30% of the positive when sleep deprived.
Dr. Leslie Sherlin
Co-founder and Chief Science Officer of SenseLabs, a leader in the research and use of neuroscience for improving human performance
Our brains are constantly learning how to perform. As you perform any task the brain learns what was effective and it begins to reproduce that same process on an ongoing basis in order to maximize efficiency. This means that when you are working at your hardest you have a thought process involved which is apparent to all of us, we typically would call it concentration or focus. There is also have an emotional response and your body begins to increase cortisol production and you may begin to feel pressure or stress in your body as a result. Your brain physiology is adapting to the workload and the effort of the task.
By keeping our brains, and thus our bodies, in this state in an ongoing and repeated way we are training our brain to be in an "on" position. If we are healthy and we have sufficient opportunity we might take the weekend off for rest and relaxation. If we're lucky we have employment that allows us downtime for vacation and holidays. However, most of our culture requires that these things be passed over or are not even offered. The effects of being constantly on can be detrimental to our overall health status and can even decrease our brain's ability to perform tasks at our best.
By overworking, whether through extreme intensity or by just keeping long hours over many days, we are training our brain to be in a high state of arousal. This means chemicals are being released to keep the brain at its high level of engagement and over time this over exposure of neurochemicals can be harmful. Our brain also makes electricity (pretty cool)! These electrical patterns shift as a result of the chemical reactions that are taking place in our brain. Over time of being at a highly engaged state we can see that the electrical activity shows an abundance of the very fast frequency activity (beta waves) and deficits of the slower waves, particularly the "idle" waves (alpha) or those that are present when you are in a relaxed state.
These brain waves can be trained to be more efficient through an training process most commonly referred to as neurofeedback. Neurofeedback can be a very effective way to regulate those brain waves in a positive direction but without monitoring or training our brain learns and adapts to the environment and the demands placed upon it. So this ultimately means that by working the brain at a high level over time it becomes rigid and has only this one speed of predominance. The brain is not a muscle but like a muscle, if you overwork the brain it will become fatigued and will not have enough "strength" to operate maximally. You will then begin to have a hard time focusing or staying engaged. If we ignore these warning signs and keep pushing our brain harder we can fatigue it to such a high degree over such a long period of time we can develop very serious health problems that may take months and even years to heal.
Our brains are constantly evolving. Both as a species and as individuals. In our always-on culture and in the age of constant digital stimulation, we are at a much higher risk for pushing our brains too hard. The negative consequences long term will far outweigh any benefits we might gain from favor from the boss for pulling that all nighter too many times. So take care of your brain. Push it hard and work it hard. But make time for rest and recovery. Find time to practice being quiet and letting your mind wander. Practice good sleep hygiene, take a hike, go for a run, do some meditation or simply play with your kids. These seemingly non-productive activities allow you brain the opportunity to be much more effective when it matters.
18-34 year olds
spend an average of 3.8 hours a day on social media
35-49 year olds
spend an average of 3 hours a day on social media
People spend an average of 444 minutes, or 7.4 hours, each day in front of screens
147 minutes watching TV
103 minutes in front of computers
151 minutes on smartphones
43 minutes with tablets