'Muscle Memory'...


I was talking to my sister recently and she told me a story that really got me thinking.

T was a professional cellist in a world-class orchestra for some years, after which she left to settle down and raise a family. She had no time for her cello during those busy family years. I can see how, after playing at such a high level, one might become increasingly apprehensive about picking up an instrument again.

Many years later, however, T did finally start playing again. And here’s the fascinating bit: she was astounded by how accurately she was able to play right off the bat.

“It was zooming up and down the fingerboard in octave and two octave leaps that blew my mind. Just sitting in one (elbow angle) position and moving my fingers I kind of took for granted, but the measurement of the ‘protractor of my elbow’ was what brought it home!”

Isn’t that idea of the elbow following the arc of a protractor brilliant? So, the ‘muscle memory’ was still there.

‘Muscle memory’ is a popular term describing learned movement skill; but of course, strictly speaking, muscles do not have memories of their own! It’s the brain that does the remembering, and sending remembered messages to muscles.

A cello has no frets; so, knowing exactly where and how firmly to place each finger along its neck (and of course the elbow angle too) for consistently clear, in-tune notes can take a long time to learn. T’s story shows that once she had practiced enough times to build strong neural pathways in her brain to send the messages to her fingers to press strings down ‘just here’ and ‘not there’ in countless combinations, those pathways hadn’t been lost even after many years’ non-use.

What all this demonstrates is the incredible power of trained messages - neural circuitry - in movement. T may have needed practice to get back up to speed, but what was still there after so many years was really impressive.

Oh, I love brains! It’s a week before Halloween as I write this; but I don’t think I’m a zombie, I don’t want to eat them, I just think they’re fantastic.

Our brains are constantly developing and building neural connections and pathways - ‘road networks’. Start learning something new, and you create new roads. Repeated use of those connections/thoughts/ideas/beliefs/messages builds bigger, stronger roads - ‘motorways’, the biggest, easiest, fastest delivery routes.

Building ‘muscle memory’, then, requires not only figuring out what to do and how to do it; repetition builds a pathway into a roadway, making easier travel for that brain-to-muscle message.

Presumably, the same applies to all kinds of thinking: beliefs, emotional responses, learning, interacting, everything. There’s the new connection bit, and then the crucial repeated-use bit; we all know it’s important to brush our teeth, but unless we actually do it, that knowledge is just languishing somewhere uselessly.

Some people argue that embedded messages become ‘automatic’, or ‘unconscious competence’; but by raising our awareness of what we’re doing and learning to redirect messages, we can still improve and/or change our processes when sufficiently motivated.

In a previous blog (‘Process Not Outcome’, July 2021), I noted how neural connections can also weaken or even be broken. The brain scan video evidence for this is there to see (there’s a video link in that blog).

However, we do like to hang onto most of the ‘wiring’ we've done, especially with powerful experiences and oft-repeated movements. The brain will decide these are important to keep. And after all, if beliefs and skills were too easy to drop, life would require constant relearning - hard work!

So, all this is lovely if your ‘old learning’ is still there if you want it, as T did when she eventually resumed her cello playing. But what about old ideas and messages you decide you no longer want? Trying not to think about them is still thinking about them, and that’s a big old backfire.

So, if trying to unlearn or erase learned things doesn’t work, the other option is to build new, alternative routes, more useful alternative messages, and to keep using those.

This is what’s happening in Alexander lessons, where your brain can start learning new ideas and messages. This may mean working against a lifetime’s ‘muscle memory’ of doing things in certain ways; so it does require attention, practice - and practicing paying attention! But it’s amazing how a little rerouted mental energy can save a whole heap of physical energy, making any activity go more smoothly and easily.

Many musicians and actors love the Alexander Technique because they often see immediate improvements in their performance, which is wonderfully motivating. Harnessing the powers of neural connecting, routing and rerouting also means it’s possible to improve technique at any age.

T added a little story about her idol, Pablo Casals - the cellists’ cellist. In his nineties, he was heard practising scales. When asked why, he said, “I think I am noticing some improvement.” How fabulous is that.

But continual improvement isn’t only for the virtuosi. The pleasure you can get just from walking with less effort, or even just sitting with less effort, is hugely uplifting as well as physically beneficial; these are activities we get to enjoy every single day. And ‘Alexandery’ thinking benefits brain health as much as body health. Boom. Did I say I love brains? Happy Halloween!