Persistence of Muscle Memory

Posted: February 19, 2006 at 1:58 pm in journal, sports

I went skiing yesterday. It was awesome. Fresh snow, knee-deep powder in places, and no lift lines despite it being Saturday of a holiday weekend.

The part which never fails to astonish me is that I can still ski. I hadn’t been skiing in probably close to three years. And skiing is not like any other activity that I do – it’s not like I get practice with strapping long boards to my feet while walking down the street or sitting in a cubicle. And yet I got off the lift at the top of the mountain, started down the steep run (yes, I cleverly chose a black diamond run for my first run of the day/year), and had an awful hundred yards or so, where I was out of control and sliding all over the slope. Then the muscle memory kicked in. By halfway down the run, I was back in control, making smooth and short turns, facing my torso down the fall line and concentrating on keeping my weight forward. And I only got better from there.

It’s bizarre when I think about it. Where is this information stored? It’s got to be in my brain someplace, some pattern-building that was done when I learned to ski. But that knowledge sits there completely dormant, unused until the right set of contextual cues arise. Then, boom, the knowledge is loaded up and it’s right there and available to be accessed.

It makes me wonder whether I could leverage the equivalent of muscle memory in other aspects of life. I think this is probably the principle behind the Memory Palace, but I’ve never really experimented with it. I think they’re similar because it’s like the equivalent of mental tagging, like del.icio.us, using mental contextual cues to elicit the appropriate memories, where muscle memory depends on physical environmental cues.

The other observation of the day was that when I get the technique right, things are so easy. There were a few points during the day when I got the rhythm down, everything working together as I went down the hill. And it was almost effortless – it just felt right. And this immediate feedback is another neat thing about sports – when you do it right, you know. When I played volleyball, the balls which I hit the hardest were the ones that it felt effortless to hit – when my technique was good, everything in the body aligned and all of my wound-up energy exploded into the ball. When I was a little bit off-center or my timing was off, I could hit the ball, but there was a greater impact on my body (there were times when I felt like I almost tore my shoulder off).

Nothing deep, I know. But it’s kind of humbling to realize how well our bodies work sometimes, that we can learn some move, put it away for years, and break it out again when we want it.

P.S. As an aside, I’m a bit less worried about the cold of New York now. It was 20 degrees at the bottom of the mountain, less than 10 at the top, and I was unzipping my jacket during the day because I was too warm. Yay layers. Well, layers and hard work.

One Response to “Persistence of Muscle Memory”

  1. Eric Nehrlich, Unrepentant Generalist || Persistent Patterns || August || 2006 Says:

    […] I was reminded of this over the weekend when I went to play volleyball out on Long Beach, accessible from the LIRR. I haven’t played seriously since leaving Stanford eight years ago, and I think I’ve played volleyball once in the past two years. So it took me a while to do anything right. The ridiculous wind didn’t help. But by the end of the day, as I got back into it and the wind died down, the muscle memory kicked back in (as it did with skiing), and I was able to start getting some good hits and passes (my setting is still atrocious though) (Oh, and regardless of how well I played, it was awesome to be out on the beach all day even if I got a bit toasted). […]

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