Muscle Memory

23 Feb 2009 // places

How we do the things that we do? A lot, I bet, is through habituation. The more we can do we do without thinking, the more we can do, because after all, attention is a scarce commodity. Of course, buddhists might aspire to paying attention to every single thing we do. But there are somethings I'd rather not pay too much attention to, like opening a door or taking a piss. Oh, what! A door knob! How fascinating. We wouldn't walk very far if we are worried about moving one leg after another most of the time.

Muscle memory is a malleable thing. I learnt a lot about muscle memory from a rotator cuff injury I got last year from swimming. One day in the pool, I turned my arm a little too hard and >click< my shoulder kind of popped out. This led to 6 months of pain in my shoulder. Sometimes my shoulder would just flare where I wouldn't be able to lift up my arm. Sometimes I would wake up and my entire right shoulder would be in a dull ache. I tried everything: ice, ibuprofen, even acupuncture. Nothing would make it go away. Then I figured it was a computer posture problem. That was close but no cigar.

Finally, I realized what had happened. I actually had to stand in front of a mirror and study how I lifted by right arm compared to my left arm. By actually looking at myself instead of relying on my internal senses, I realized that I had somehow learned to lift my right should >every< time I lifted my right arm. In contrast, my left shoulder just sat there, like a proper socket.

That's when I realized that during the months that my rotator cuff was slowly healing, I had habitually lifted my shoulder everytime I used my right arm in order to avoid disturbing the shoulder. So that even after the rotator cuff was more or less healed, I had habituated a really painful way of using my right arm. I realized that to get rid of the shoulder pain, I would have to train my right arm to move the way it used.

This took several weeks, where I would make hundreds of repititions of raising my right arm without raising my shoulder. This felt really weird at first. The hardest part was a week where I would sit at the computer table, and, whilst using the computer, consciously force the shoulder to stay down. Now there is no pain but I have begun to appreciate how malleable our bodies are. All it takes is a certain amount of repitition and boom your body moves along a different groove, sometimes more painful, sometimes more graceful.

So then I realized what little everyday annoyances could be a case of insufficiently correct habituation. I work on a computer all day: I type on the keyboard all the time and use the mouse. Fortunately, when I was young, my mother was somewhat fascist and made me learn to finish a touchtyping self-learning manual before I was allowed to have a computer so I can touchtype except certain punctuation keys, as they were not part of the touchtyping course that my mother made me take. Unfortunately, for programming, these non-standard keys like '~' and ']' and '_' are really really important. They're situated far from the center of the keyboard so that they're not easy to find.

So I spent a week learning to type just those keys until I can hit them without thinking. I hadn't realized how much it can affect my flow to have to look down at the keyboard. Some say that a craftsman is one who fuses with his or her tools, and it's only now that I my fingers can feel the whole of the keyboard without the need to grope for those strange keys. I find that I spend more chunks of time absorbed in my work thoughts.

Sometimes I look over at the colleagues working next to me and marvel at the clarity of their notebooks. I work in an experimental lab where postdocs and grad students in pristing white lab coats perform complex 10 hour experiments. It is crucial that they record everything in a clear and precise way. Their handwriting is neat and tidy, and a joy to behold. Then I look at my own notebook and I shiver at the unreadable scrawl that I had unleashed on my moleskin notebook.

It's not that my own handwriting is particularly bad, but I've always wanted clean handwriting so that one day, when the muse does strike me down with a cudgel, I can write out reams and reams of inspiring grammar-perfect prose, which I would then pass off to my secretary to dictate.

I once had a dick of a Russian professor who was supervising me in a minor research project. I showed him some calculations that I had made where the conclusion was somewhat contrary to his expectations. We argued and argued until he just plain said that he didn't trust my calculations. To prove this, he went over to his filing cabinent, and pulled out an exam paper that I did in his class the semester before. Look at this, he said pointing to my most messy handwriting, how can I trust anyone who writes like this?

Handwriting too, is a matter of habituation, much more so than tapping on a keyboard. There is style and character, and rhythm. I faintly remember classes of elementary school where we were given slanted horizontal line guides and everybody was made to learn to write in standard basic cursive. How that evolved to what I have, I don't know.

Still, I found that my handwriting could be trained, and unlike the clickety clack and geometric training in relearning the typing on the keyboard, learning to write is therapeutic from finishing the rounds of the O's to the swooshes of the F's. Retraining my handwriting involved, funny enough, a lot of mental work. Apart from repeating certain new shapes for the letters, it was crucial that I imagine clearly the shape of the characters that I wanted to write before I write them. If a journal is a concrete expression of the train of my inner thoughts, my inner thoughts now seem more ordered and clear, and above all, readable, even to myself.

I've played guitar for 10 years, mostly self-taught. As such, I've learnt plenty of mistakes. However, one of the joys of learning to play guitar yourself, is correcting your own mistakes. What fun is it if you're taught to play the right way from the beginning? You don't get the feeling of being such an idiot for all these ways one gets when one finds that there was a better way of holding that chord that was simpler and less painful.

Still, once I got on to the whole muscle memory retraining, I had to reexamine my guitar playing style. Now one thing I never learnt was to play the guitar without looking at the fretboard. As a result I could never really play with other people because when you play with other people, I've found that you must be able to play the guitar without thinking and concentrate on everyone else in the room.

Indeed, after watching performers carefully on Youtube, I realized that nobody on stage ever looks at their fretboard. If you want to perform, you'd better be able to play the instrument without looking at it. You should be able to play it blind. I once talked to a lighting guy after a show. At various point, the lighting guy flipped all the lights on stage off. I asked if that had all been rehearsed and the lighting guy told me that he just made it up as he went along. I guess if you're playing on stage, it's just assumed that you can still play in the dark.

Over the last few months, I've been working hard on the basics: memorizing whole pieces, learning to play the guitar without looking at it. What I've fond is that as my fingers have learnt to dance around the fretboard, I feel the music more. Through the muscle memory of knowing the location of every note, I've incarnated some of the music in my body. The guitar feels more and more like a part of my body, and plucking the strings feels more like singing from the heart than bashing an algorithm onto a keyboard.