Recently I had occasion to use one of the public computers in my local library. At one time this was a regular occurrence because I didn’t have internet access at home, but now it’s only something I do very occasionally.
The system is: you log in to the system with your reader number and passcode, and then get an hour’s use of the computer.
I typed in my reader number, then was surprised and horrified to realise that I had no idea what my passcode was. But I remembered from a previous occasion that it had been possible to log in as a guest, so I went to the desk to ask if I could do that.
The library assistant looked rather helplessly at me, said something about not having enough access to the system to do anything, and suggested I try entering my birthday as the passcode. I knew that my birthday most certainly wasn’t the passcode. But she also told me that the system didn’t have any limit on how many times I could enter the wrong code. I wouldn’t end up getting locked out if I tried everything I could think of.
What I knew, though, was that in the days when I had known my passcode, I’d primarily remembered it not by the digits themselves or some fancy mnemonic for them, but by the pattern of keystrokes needed to type them. I’d remembered them pretty much like a fingering pattern on an instrument.
I went back to my seat and stopped trying to remember the passcode. I typed in my reader number, thought about where my finger should probably go for the first digit of the passcode, then let my fingers type a sequence of keys that felt right on the keyboard. I clicked OK.
Immediately, on the first attempt, I found myself logged in. The key to remembering my passcode had been to stop trying to consciously remember it, and to let my fingers follow the pattern that they always had done when typing it before. The code wasn’t still programmed into my brain, but the movements for typing it were still programmed into my fingers.
That’s what musicians are talking about when they mention kinaesthetic memory.