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Brain file compression

  1. Aug 21, 2010 #1
    Hi. You may only understand what I am going on about here if you play an instrument.

    I have often noticed that there are songs that I really love and know inside out, which, in my mind, I can play almost perfectly in my head; most of the parts and certainly all of the melodies etc.

    But then, I pick up my guitar and try to play the parts from memory, and I get nowhere! It's almost as if when I was playing that song in my head, my mind was tricking me into thinking that I knew the whole song inside out, when I didn't, or that my mind has a good grasp of the song and the general sound, but can't recall the general notes.

    Has anyone else experienced this, or have other examples? It's pretty vexing and unassuring to think that there are lots of things that you think your brain knows well but it doesn't. On the other hand, maybe this is a really nice example of the brain seemingly retaining quite strong memories, but compressing them and leaving out details (I know the brain isn't a hard drive, but you know what I mean).

    I find this really quite interesting. Maybe when they figure out how the brain works (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/8164060.stm), this might lead to new advances in file compression or something!
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 21, 2010 #2

    Filip Larsen

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    My personal theory (of the type that is developed right before sleep sets in :wink:) is that what when trying to remember songs, movies, events, etc, we more remember our total perception of those impressions than the impression itself and only by repeating the impression, perhaps even in different contexts, can we get to focus on the impression itself.

    In addition, it also seems to me that for temporal extended recollections like a song, movie, or a walking trip in an unfamiliar city, we to some degree need the feedback of the earlier parts to recall the later parts. Sometimes our recollection of an earlier part can make us recall the later parts, but if the recollection is "flawed" it may easily make the recollection of the later parts become even more flawed or make it the wrong recollection, like skipping parts of a song or going into a loop when recalling from memory because many of the segments in the song are very similar. Remembering a song by remembering a bodily movement like when playing it on an instrument is probably going to give much less flaws as the brain seems to be very good at recalling muscle movements patterns.

    If I'm not mistaken, there has in fact been proposed serious theories about how the brain remembers non-muscle memories by perceiving them as movement of "virtual muscles" in a "virtual body" that fits the domain in question. For instance, people good at chess would, according to this theory, to a large extend perceive the chess board and its pieces as a "body" that it can move.
  4. Aug 21, 2010 #3

    Ivan Seeking

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    In a sense, the same thing happens to students who don't do their homework problems - esp in math and physics. They read the book and think they understand it, but they don't.

    I have had the opposite happen when playing the piano. There are some songs that I learned long ago, that I couldn't begin to play purposely. But if I just let go and let my fingers do the thinking, the song often just comes pouring out as if I learned it yesterday. The moment I think about what I'm doing, I lose it.
  5. Aug 23, 2010 #4
    Yeah, I know what you mean there, I used to play piano, and I can still remember a piece almost off by heart even though it was ages ago that I learnt it, but I could never write out the notes or start playing it from the middle of the song.

    It's not quite the opposite though. What you are saying is that you have that muscle memory of playing the song, but it's not the same as trying to recall the notes from memory.

    I totally agree. It's always so easy to sing along to a song you know well, but often you won't be able to do it all from memory without it playing. However, this is partly the song constantly correcting you too.
  6. Aug 23, 2010 #5
    i could never really play "by ear". i've got decent recognition memory with music, but not declarative. so... i can hear it in my head, then find the notes for it by some trial and error. eventually, i'd have all the fingerings memorized or written down. but if i just heard an Ab, i probably wouldn't go directly to it. that was despite 7+ years of playing an instrument, and actually being better than average at it.
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