While some memories fade and disappear over time by a process of gradual decay, 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 the right 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 mechanism of interference can be understood as follows:
- 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 that is already thoroughly soaked and can absorb 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.
Implications for Students and Teachers
Don’t study-practice too much of a single skill (ear training, for example) in a single session. Your brain can absorb only so much so fast and needs time and rest in order to consolidate the new material.
Divide you study-practice sessions to include a diversity of skills (technique, scales, chords, chord progressions, rhythm, ear training, improvisation). This is Because this uses different parts of your brain, these aspects do not interfere with each other.
Study-practice any given skill is small sessions spaced over time. You will learn far more if you study a single topic for five minutes a day every day than if you cram on the same topic for one hour once a week.