Forget About Forgetting!

Forgetting is not quite what we think it is. Every time we remember something we re-mind ourselves, recreate it, collect all the clues and revisit it — contrary to the imagery about the brain that has dominated since the invention of the computer, our brain is not a computer. It does not process data like a computer. In fact, it doesn’t even contain data.

A fascinating article by the prominent research psychologist, Robert Epstein, totally debunks the notion that our brains function like a computer, although this has been the mainstream image among scientists and the public since the 1940s when computers were invented.

Epstein speaks of performing music or reciting a poem. “When called on to perform, neither the song nor the poem is in any sense ‘retrieved’ from anywhere in the brain, any more than my finger movements are ‘retrieved’ when I tap my finger on my desk. We simply sing or recite – no retrieval necessary.”

What happens to all that mental effort to memorize a tune? In my earlier article Reversing Old Presumptions, I discussed why I think that our ability to remember a tune has more to do with training our ears and muscle memory than it has to do with memorizing something in our heads.  Another earlier article in the fiddle-online blog, Turning Music Learning On Its Head, talked about how learners often get in their own way by trying to drill, memorize, and follow methods that they believe to be their “learning style.”

The more we learn about how we learn, the more we find out how little we know!  Neuroscientist Kenneth Miller wrote a column about the current knowledge of brain structure — his “wild guess” is that it will take centuries before we can map the basic neuronal wiring of a mammalian brain.

The inspirational part of all this is that you are free to explore many avenues that lead you to learning the fiddle. Be wary of drilling notes over and over; this has been shown to cause fatigue and diminished returns. Play games and explore new ways of playing without worrying about the “correct” way — you have time to approach your best way of playing a tune.

Above all, improvise. This doesn’t mean making up notes, necessarily, contrary to popular belief. Every time you play along with a playalong track, or a self-repeating phrase audio in the interactive sheet music throughout, you are actually improvising, because you are not in control of the timing — you have to play along until the end, and make your way through.

Guess what the neuroscientists have noticed about the brain? When you are improvising, you stop editing and criticizing yourself!  This has been shown in observations of which brain areas are activated by different activites.  In This is your brain on improvisation, K.C. Ifeanyi writes that when improvising music, “the area of the brain responsible for self-monitoring shut off, and the source of self-expression lit up. What that basically boils down to is you’re less inhibited when you’re improvising.”

And every time you play and improvise, your ears and muscle memory are picking up more information than you can imagine. In fact, it’s more than any scientist today can know about.

For the science, check back in a century, maybe they’ll have it under control. For now, you’re free to learn, try, experiment, play, and enjoy. The audio tracks and technique games on video, among other things on, are here to help you do just that!

©2019 Ed Pearlman

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