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Smart Muscles in Sports

The term muscle memory has been around a long time.  I usually hear it in relation to a sport, such as a golf swing.  You practice over-and-over, thinking about the mechanics each time.  There are many check-points: head/shoulders/hips/legs/knees/hands.  And this is before the swing even starts.  After sufficient practice, you turn off the thinking and go on autopilot.  The muscles “remember” the mechanics.  Or do they?

Muscle Memory in Music

How are musicians able to play an instrument such as piano or guitar, and sing at the same time.  Do their brains multitask that well compared to mine?  The latest research says multitasking is a myth.  I’ve read that the first step to playing & singing is to thoroughly learn the instrumental part.  When it is committed to memory, you can focus on the vocals.  This appears to be similar to the muscle memory in sports: the ability to continue performing a task without consciously thinking about it.  Again the question is asked, is the memory in the muscles (in this case limited to the hands and fingers), or is the brain actually in control.  Are we training our brain or our muscles?

Brain Research

Books about the brain have become very popular.  The search term “neuroplasticity” on Amazon books has 471 results.  I’ve read a few of the new brain books. I particularly enjoyed Your Brain At Work by David Rock, because it specifically addressed how an understanding of the brain can help optimize performance at work.  The concept of neuroplasticity suggests that the brain is adaptable in it’s ability to form new neural connections, not just at an early age, but throughout life.  It’s obvious that children’s brains are forming these connections at an incredible rate.  But, the idea that the brain can continue to adapt for our entire life is new.  This is a very appealing idea – hence the number of books being published.

Keeping the Brain Healthy

Okay, so if the brain remains capable of forming new connections throughout our lives, how can we facilitate its health. A guaranteed pharmacological solution for cognitive health doesn’t seem to be imminent.   But the experts suggest the following actions can not only improve brain performance but may delay age related decline as well: good diet, exercise, stress reduction, social activity, taking up new hobbies and breaking routines.  These are typically listed as a good list for “seniors”, I would argue it’s excellent at any age.  Even people like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg challenges himself each year to develop a new skill (like learning Mandarin).

My Experience

Not wanting to be just a bystander, I have tried several of the cognitive development approaches.

Know Your Brain:  The book Your Brain at Work gave me several useful tips.  Such as matching the task to your cognitive states throughout the day.

Diet:  Reduced the refined carbs and increased fruits and vegetables.  I’m sure this is a good thing, but I can’t really claim I’ve noticed a difference.

Exercise: I developed an exercise routine.  I think it helps out in many ways, such as stress reduction and of course general health.  But I can’t claim that I noticed a direct correlation to cognition.

Coffee:  There are two camps; studies that show impairment and those that show improvement.  The studies that show cognitive improvement are the vast majority.  I’m curious how many of the studies are funded by Starbucks or Green Mountain. Personal experience: there is the obvious mental boost, but there is also the decline (crash).

Energy Drinks:  Never tried them.

Nootropics: (smart drugs) These are over-the-counter supplements that claim to improve memory, focus, mood and general cognitive health.  Some can be very expensive. I’ve tried one in a capsule form that was for general brain health and didn’t notice anything. This was self-observed anecdotal evidence; I didn’t attempt any structured testing.  I also tried a supplement for mood enhancement.  I didn’t think it was having much effect until I stopped taking it – and the change was dramatic.  I’ll write about that in a future post.

Games:  There are two main providers of brain games:  Lumosity and BrainHQ.  I subscribe to Lumosity.  Initially it was much cheaper, but I think their pricing is comparable now.  Playing their “games” is purported to improve a variety of functions such as memory, focus and problem solving.  My score went up steadily over the first two months then leveled.  I’m not sure if that was improvement in brain function or mastery of the game.  (Or is that the same thing)  Either way, it provides a baseline and if I continue to use the program over the years, it might give me a warning of decline.  New game are introduced periodically.

Habits: Breaking habits to form new neural connections.  This can be something simple, like taking a new route when driving to a familiar location.  It forces the brain out of autopilot.  It can also be something more dramatic, like a first time trip to Italy or skydiving.  I’m not doing so well in this area.  I’m loving my habits too much.

Hobbies: I decided to re-learn the piano for my new hobby.  I took lessons for 2 years about the time I was in second / third grade.  That was decades ago.  Attempting to learn to play an instrument as an adult was quite revealing.  The process of reading dots on a sheet of ruled paper, converting those dots to hand motions and aligning those hand motions to specific positions on the keys of a piano was quite a challenge.  Something I didn’t appreciate at age 8.  I was about to meet muscle memory.

I started like any beginner, with a simple piece of music and learning the treble clef portion (right hand) first.  DONE. Now learn the bass clef (left hand). DONE.  Now – play them together.  Suddenly, both hands forgot everything.  What happened?

I had not sufficiently “learned” either one.  It takes more than 5 minutes.  While I thought I had “learned” the right hand portion, my brain was still actively engaged and thinking through the translation of dots, to hands and positions on keys.  My learning was not deep enough.  When I tried to play both hands together – it was a multitasking train wreck in my brain.

In Daniel Goleman’s book Focus, he says when a task is sufficiently learned it is stored in the basal ganglia, which then frees up the prefrontal cortex to continue to solve real time problems. I was trying to perform two tasks at once in my prefrontal area.  The solution: actually spend more than 5 minutes mastering the right hand portion, then the left, then play them together. It worked!

I went through the same hurdle when I tried to add the peddle on the piano.  Solution: Get to a place of deeper learning playing both hands together until that memory is stored deeply.  Then the prefrontal cortex can handle the peddle playing.  Note: I’m surely oversimplifying how the brain works.  But, this topic gets deep very quickly and I’m no expert.  If you want to research this in more depth, try one of the books.

Did taking up a new hobby (piano playing) help to keep my brain young, form new synapses, make me more effective at work.  Perhaps.  It’s a hard thing to measure.  But sometimes you just want to take up a hobby for fun.

Muscle Memory and Work Applications

Most jobs don’t have a lot of opportunity to develop muscle memory.  But a close cousin is the act of mastering a new application to your procedural memory, such as learning how to use a new software application.  A certain amount of time must be dedicated to mastering the tool (committing it to memory) before we can effectively use the tool for its intended purpose. An example.

MindMeister is an online tool to facilitate, record and share your mind maps.  Mind maps are a graphic way to facilitate and boost creativity.  I started using the tool MindMeister a few weeks ago.  It attempts to be super easy to use, you don’t want anything that slows you down between your spur-of-the-moment idea and its capture in the tool.  Nothing kills creativity faster than trying to figure out which tool to use in a tool bar.

In spite of the developers best efforts, the usability of the tool was in fact slowing me down when I attempted to capture my thoughts.  I finally went through a couple of tutorials.  I even upgraded from the free version to a 6 month subscription, and got answers to a couple of questions within 24 hours from their support group.  Now that the syntax of the program is in my deep memory, by brain is free to quickly capture the brilliant insights when and if they ever return.

Next Week:

My experience with one of the new meditation apps.

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Photo by Torrye Wiley, CC2.0 License