Motor Memory

I was going to write about my exciting journey from High Meadows carpool line to Georgia Tire Depot this morning. I began jotting down notes while I waited for Dennis to check my tires for the source of the problem that caused the indicator light’s flicker to life as I pulled out of the garage. But the lost time in my morning provided me a different driveway moment to share.

Dennis dispatched me in a matter of minutes with reassurances:

“No nail in that back tire. Maybe you picked up a stone and it worked its way out. All four tires have equal pressure. You’re good to go.” Apparently, the drastic changes in temperature in the fall—today’s chilly morning air warming to the mid 50’s by noon—can set off the sensor.

So I was behind the wheel and crawling through the tail end of rush hour traffic in time to catch the end of NPR’s Morning Edition.  Over the opening chords of The Beatles’ “Michelle,” Jon Hamilton’s voice:

“You know those albums you played so many times that every song seems etched into your brain?”

Yes, I do!  I often wonder—especially when listening to 97.1 The River, Atlanta’s Classic Rock Station—why I can remember the lyrics to every song played on the radio when I was a teenager, but I can’t remember the rabbinic text that I studied last week.  If I could just erase some of those words, would there be more room for words of Torah? Similarly, thanks to a song I learned when I was 9 years old, I can recite the 50 states in alphabetical order. But I can’t seem to learn the Arabic alphabet.

Do you think I’m going to have to learn the alphabet song, like a toddler?

Think again! According to the research of neuroscientist Josef Rauschecker, who was inspired by The Beatles’ White Album, it is the motor areas of our brains that are activated when we listen to familiar music.  The results of Rauschecker’s experiment suggest that “areas involved in hearing can remember small chunks of notes, but it takes the motor system to put these chunks in the right order.”

Motor memory is such a powerful force.  Once your muscles learn to do something, you remember how to do that activity without really thinking about it.  It’s like riding a bike!  And my motor memory is a fine-tooled instrument: I engage it by writing dozens of lists and sticky notes as reminders.

Do you think I’m going to have to write the alphabet in my notebook 100 times?

Maybe there is another way…I must call my friend who has agreed to teach me Arabic. Perhaps we need to design a new curriculum; one that includes singing and dancing.


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