Let's get physical
Anthropologist to global firms, Simon Roberts presents an argument that takes the shine off the mind, and focuses on the body's innate ability to remember
There's a scene in the new cult series Cobra Kai, when a lanky Demetri, played by Gianni Decenzo, considers Sensei Danny's fence painting instructions—one that Danny inherited from his own sensei Mr Miyagi back in 1984—and realises that it is just a method of building muscle memory. If one were to look for a pop culture ode to muscle memory, the four movies in The Karate Kid series and the new Netflix series would perhaps be it.
Yet, there are more complexities to muscle memory than just learning a few steps to a process and then being able to perform them absent-mindedly—like entering the PIN to your debit card at an ATM. It's this that anthropologist Simon Roberts, who advises global organisations like Intel, Facebook, Spotify and Google, through his London-based consultancy Stripe Partner, has explored in his new book aptly titled, The Power of Not Thinking (published by Bonnier, represented in India by HarperCollins). Roberts starts by discussing the act of driving and why this has been difficult to Artificial Intelligence. Simple instructions such as accelerate, or "watch out for someone on the road" he points out, are difficult to translate into binaries. A driver who is decently good, will be able to know exactly how much pressure to apply on the accelerator without thinking about it. They will be able to judge the actions of the person on the road—"Is he getting into the passenger seat of the parked car ahead, or is he going to cross the road?"—without much consideration. He writes: "Humans interpret these situations without applying much conscious thought to it, but building a machine that can make sense of scenarios like these is very hard." And so, the need to understand that we as humans possess knowledge not just in our brains, but also our body, which he calls embodied knowledge.
On how one can develop muscle memory, Roberts says, "In academic contexts this sort of memory is typically referred to as 'procedural memory' because it allows us to perform procedures or skills automatically, without having to consider how we proceed from one step to the next." This ability to act unconsciously, but with precision, is found in a "bewildering" array of contexts in our everyday lives. "Rather than being the preserve of the gifted and experienced craftswoman or racing driver, it is in evidence when we do up our shoelaces, play the piano or type on a keyboard. We acquire this sort of muscle memory through practice—by performing tasks. Layer after layer of experience is laid down in our body. A more scientific explanation would be that as we perform these skills, patterns of movement become embedded in our central nervous system—what we think of as muscle memory is a powerful combination of habituated muscles and the brain's neural networks."
But, muscle memory is not just personal. It's cultural and can also be passed down through generations. Roberts explains: "Has anyone ever said to you 'you looked just like your father [or mother]?' If they have, it's not just that you share some of their looks, but the way you smiled, or pursed your lips, reminded that person of how much of your parent's mannerisms you've inherited. That's a good example of embodied knowledge being transmitted, through mimesis, from one person to another across generations."
He adds that how we hold our bodies or perform everyday actions is similarly transmitted from person to person across time, through observation, mimicry, repetition and its retention in our bodies. "In that way cultural knowledge is both stored in and shared between bodies over very long periods of time." Giving the example of a trained police officer, he says, she may know the law and the guidelines she must follow, but it is important that she uses her body to assert her authority in a public order situation. "Her training is not limited to what is legal and the procedures she must follow, but also includes how she should impose herself in situations of risk and danger."
As the body ages, do we lose muscle memory, then? Roberts says, "Although bodies are amazing at retaining knowledge, we can shed muscle memory. While it's hard to forget how to ride a bike, if you stop doing things for a while, you quickly lose some of the 'sharpness' of that skill. It's also the case that you can quickly get back into the swing of things and your body quickly becomes re-acquainted with the sensory-motor skills that you previously took for granted."
He gives his own experience as an amateur, and occasional, skier. "Every time I get back on the slopes, I spend the first few days having to think quite hard about what I am doing. After a while, I find my rhythm again and realise I'm no longer applying much conscious thought to what I am doing. My body is back in the flow again and feels at one with the snow, the slopes and the scenery."
The idea that it's going to be difficult to learn new skills as we age, has no weight, he says. "Whenever our bodies perform tasks, they are able to acquire muscle memory and there's little evidence to suggest that this ability reduces over time. Consider the case of someone in their retirement taking up a new sport or hobby. They are well able to acquire decent levels of proficiency in these activities and may even become highly skilled."
So, go on. It might not be too late to join Miyagi Do.
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