Body – Control – Muscle Memory

Friday, October 23rd, 2009 at 8:00 am.
by pre.

Next week, we’ll present a guided lucid dream designed to help improve your control over your body. However, it’s worth noting that your body is paralysed during sleep, unable to move, unable to properly practice. If there is one thing which people with excellent body control have in common, it’s that they’ve practised lots!

Be they professional tennis players, virtuoso pianists, savvy conjurers, accomplished darts competitors, Olympic javelin hurlers, adept pistol shots, trained fencers or capable contortionists, the one thing that experts at body control will all have in common is hundreds and hundreds of hours of practise. While visualisation and lucid dreaming can help make the most of that practise, they will never be a substitute for it.

To be as in control of your body as you can be, you will need to spend lots of time deliberately concentrating on your body as you use it, as you move and dance and jump and play.

If you have been continuing to do the excercises listed in the last lap around the spiral then you are already practising a fair amount, but of course that this is essentially the bare minimum you should be doing. Those excercises will not help you develop fine motor control in your fingers, they will not help you learn the subtleties of interacting with a ball, they will not help you learn to juggle or climb or twiddle a poker chip over your hand or run or type or play computer games or walk a tight rope or ride a bicycle. The only way to improve at these things is to do them for a few hours.

Muscle Memory

The results of learning new control functions over your muscles like this is known as muscle memory. While the contraction patterns and muscle movement groups aren’t literally stored in the muscle cells themselves, much of the process is indeed moved down from the conscious frontal cortex to neurons closer to the muscles. A process of pushing that control down the spinal column towards the relevent muscles themselves.

Many movements, especially well practised ones such as walking or talking, do not require the motor cortex of the brain to send delicate contraction signals to each of the muscle groups involved in the action. Instead, a control signal is sent to the spinal column, and the actual movement patterns needed to perform this control function are recalled and regenerated by neurons closer to the muscles themselves, in the neural networks which more directly interface with those muscle groups.

Surprisingly Rapid

The process of gaining new muscle memory can be surprisingly rapid. While it it takes hundreds, probably thousands, of hours to learn to be an expert in the kinds of skills in which muscle memory is relevent, competing in world-class events, representing your nation at international level, it only takes a few dozen hours to become better than almost anyone you know at anything from which which most people refrain. If you put in forty hours more practice at a given skill than all your friends, you’ll surely be better at it than all your friends.

While the first few minutes at learning any new skill are often frustrating, perseverance usually leads to amazingly rapid increases in ability. Take juggling as an example. When first learning to juggle, you will inevitably drop the balls on almost every single throw. Over and over again. Most people give up after just a few throws. “I can’t juggle” they may decide, having dedicated less than five minutes to learning the task. However, if you stick at it for an hour a day for just a week, you’ll almost certainly be better at it than any of those quitters.

Remember that the unconscious networks of neurons which control and implement muscle memory are small, and stupid. They will learn the general idea relatively rapidly, and only take millions of repetitions to hone their skills to perfection. If one hundred times at practising take you 10% of the way towards perfecting it, you will see most gains when you are farthest away from that skill. Often the easiest learning is the low-hanging-fruit at the beginning of learning a task.

To summarise: If you’re trying to learn a skill, do not quit, do not assume you are simply bad at a skill, until you have given your muscle memory time to adapt and grow. Force yourself to practice for an hour, every week day for a month. This is less than a week’s time spent in a full time job. You’ll be surprised how much progress you’ll make. Remember to video or otherwise record yourself at the beginning and end of that month too, so you’ll easily be able to see the difference just 20 hours can make.