The primary reason that most of us “forget” something is that we never really learned that something in the first place. And the reason we did not learn is that we did not study the right things or we studied the right things but studied them the wrong way.
But assuming that we are studying the right things the right way, one reason we “forget” is that we try to do too much too fast in one study session. Such forgetting takes place by a process called interference. The logic goes like this:
- Similar mental activities use similar parts of your brain.
- It is possible to saturate any part of your brain with new information. The sensation associated with this is mental exhaustion. In this state, your brain is like a sponge already thoroughly soaked in water and it will soak up no more.
- Once any part of your brain becomes saturated with new information, any attempt to add more information will be fruitless at best and possibly destructive. Two undesirable things can happen. The additional information will not be encoded at all or… the additional information will interfere… by becoming confused with or by replacing the information that is already there.
But don’t despair! There is some great news… It is important to understand that interference only applies to similar material that is studied in similar way. Information that is dissimilar (that exercises different parts of your brain) does not interfere! Furthermore, information that has already been consolidated (already securely stored in long-term memory) is not be vulnerable to interference.
The implications for both students and teachers are profound:
- You should never try to study too much of a single topic (ear training, for example) in a single session.
- You should try to study several different kinds of things (technique, scales, chord progressions, rhythm, ear training, improvisation) in a single session, because this uses different parts of your brain.
- You will learn more if you study a single topic for five minutes a day every day than if you studied the same topic for one hour once a week.