The Monday Morning Memo: Why Do My Fingers Know This Song?

Monday-Morning-Memo-Logo1By Roy H. Williams

“Why do my fingers know this song so much better than my mind?” is a question that has been asked by every piano player that ever played. Most recently, it was asked by Monica Ballard’s mom. Monica answered, “I don’t know, Mom, but I’ll ask Roy tomorrow when I get to the office.” Want to hear something funny? If Monica had asked me the question 2 days earlier, I wouldn’t have known the answer, but as fate would have it, I had just finished researching that very subject.

Basically, there are 3 kinds of memory: Working, Declarative, and Procedural.

Working Memory is active memory, the thought that you are thinking now. It is imagination, the ability to see possibilities in your mind. Electrical and temporary, it is the RAM in the human computer.

Declarative Memory is stored memory, all the things that you can remember. It is the recall of “known information” from the hard drive of your brain. Declarative memory is largely chemical.

Procedural Memory is muscular memory, engraved into the very fabric of your being. It is instinctual and automatic, deeply embedded through much repetition. As I’m sure you’ve already guessed, Monica’s mom was recalling the song through procedural memory. But don’t think of these categories of memory as isolated from one another; they overlap continually. You are swinging a baseball bat. Consciously focused on how you are going to swing it, working memory (imagination) is involved. Recalling the tips and rules you’ve memorized for swinging the bat correctly, declarative memory is involved. And when your muscles respond in a manner very similar to the previous 1,000 swings you’ve made, procedural memory will be involved.

Interestingly, false memories are often implanted when an abstract, right-brain working memory (imagination) interacts with a left-brain (experience-based) declarative memory. This was recently demonstrated by University of Washington researchers Jacquie Pickrell and Elizabeth Loftus when they asked 120 people who had recently visited Disneyland to evaluate proposed advertising copy, fill out several questionnaires and answer questions about their trips. Among the ads these volunteers were asked to evaluate was a print ad describing how visitors to Disneyland could meet and shake hands with Bugs Bunny. Fully one third of the 120 later described in detail how they clearly remembered seeing or meeting Bugs Bunny during their trip. Such an event, however, could not possibly have happened since Bugs Bunny is a Warner Bros. cartoon character and has never appeared at a Walt Disney Co. property.

According to Jacquie Pickrell, “creating a false memory is a process... You may not have had a great experience the last time you visited Disneyland or McDonald’s, but since their ads give you the impression that you had a wonderful time, they can actually create that memory. If advertising can get people to believe they had an experience that they never actually had, that is pretty powerful.”

Amen, Jacquie, amen.

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