Mental Energy and Fuelling Yourself for Learning Guitar

English: Pepitas - roasted and salted
Pumpkin seeds – one of my favourite brain foods! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)




I’ve been reading a book recently by the name of “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Nobel Prize-winning author Daniel Kahneman (it’s a great read, you should check it out: . In this Kahneman discusses the idea that we have two “systems” operating in the brain:


  • System 1 – which is the “non-thinking” part of us, responsible for things that we do automatically, such as reflexes, reactions, habits and so on.


  • System 2 – which is the “thinking” part of us, responsible for us undertaking activities that require concentration, attention and mental effort.


This concept resonated with me in relation to learning the guitar, particularly so given that I’ve been learning a brand spanking new piece recently. It got me thinking that when we’re playing guitar, playing something we know absolutely inside out, backwards and upside down, something we’ve been playing for a long time, we’re really playing through our “System 1”. We’ve embedded something so much that it becomes a habit. And so it stands to reason, therefore, that when we’re learning something new, we’re utilising our “System 2” – concentrating and using real, discernable mental effort.


The new piece I’ve been learning recently is particularly involved, lengthy and intense – learning it has required some of the most intense mental effort and concentration I think I’ve ever exerted! After one particular lesson on this piece I felt like my brain had been pulled out backward through my head. I felt like I was like a zombie. I was also starving hungry! This is my “System 2” in full flight.


According to Kahneman:


“…the idea of mental energy is more than a mere metaphor. The nervous system consumes more glucose than most other parts of the body, and effortful mental activity appears to be especially expensive in the currency of glucose. When you are actively involved in difficult cognitive reasoning or engaged in a task that requires self-control, your blood glucose level drops. The effect is analogous to a sprinter who draws down glucose stored in her muscles during a sprint.


Hmmm, very interesting. So when we’re learning a new piece on the guitar, really concentrating on reading each and every note, pitch, duration, rhythm, left hand fingering, right hand fingering, positioning on the fretboard and keeping it all together and all moving, we’re actually doing something akin to a mental sprint or some kind of mental “run” at least. You’re burning real energy, and burning it at a much greater rate than you probably would be when working on something you know inside out.


It’s probably a good idea, therefore, to think about fuelling yourself up sufficiently prior to a good solid practice session, particularly if you’re working on something brand spanking new! You don’t have to go crazy and use it as an excuse to pig out or to eat a lot of sugary or fatty foods. Just a little of something wholesome and nutritious before you sit down (and a glass of water so you’re well hydrated) is probably a good idea.


I’m no nutritionist, but something like a wee ham, cheese, salad sandwich on wholemeal, some Nutella or peanut butter on wholemeal, a handful of nuts and dried fruits or a banana prior to practice time sets me up well.


Here are some other ideas for you: