I spend a surprising number of minutes during each day thinking about muscles, coordination, thought processes, and things like “muscle memory.” And let me just state, for the record, that RF is absolutely, completely, 100% right with his recent post, The Myth of Muscle Memory. However, I have a few things to add to the discussion, largely because I’m coming at this from a slightly different point of view.

I spent 13 years of my teen/early adult years as a teacher. Not just a teacher – a music teacher. I grew up in a musical family, and I started playing drums when I was just four years old. Turned pro at 15. Taught drums, guitar, bass, vibes, keyboards and a slew of other instruments. You can’t do that without eventually being curious to learn how people learn, if only to make your own job easier. And what I learned about learning makes for some thought provoking discussion here on TTAG, when applied to the subject of self-defense.

The first thing I learned came from a Neurologist student of mine. He explained how the brain forms new synaptic pathways when we learn a new skill as babies. Ever watch a newborn staring at their fist? They are literally figuring out how to open and close their fingers. They may spend days working out the problem, but eventually, their brain wires synapses together to allow their tiny hands to open and close. Then they forget about, as it becomes automatic. They visualize their hand opening, and it opens. Practice makes perfect.

But that process takes time. And as time goes by, we forget how to forge these neurological pathways. So we cheat. We take one pathway, and try to force-fit the square peg of a similar behavior into the round hole of another. Case in point – as a kid you might play baseball. Four-inch diameter, round object flying towards you at near 100 miles per hour, while you swing a bat at it in a horizontal plane.

Fast-forward to young adulthood. You’ve joined a company and learned your bosses all play golf. You don’t know how, but you think, “How hard can this be? It’s just swinging a club at a ball, and besides, I was pretty good at baseball!” You head to the links. Now it’s a 1 1/2″ diameter ball on the ground, and a vertical swing. Different muscles. Different coordination. Different hand-eye linkages. Disaster ensues.

Most people just keep forcing that square peg in, and eventually wind up with a semi-ability to hit the ball, albeit with a lousy swing. Some, however, go back and start as babies do, thinking about how it feels, in slow motion, and establish new synaptic pathways. These people end up with beautiful swings and end up on the PGA Tour.

So, how’s that apply to guns and self defense you ask? Fair question. My point is that there are two ways to learn: let’s call them adaptive and elementary. For things that relate well to one another, say driving a car, then learning to drive a diesel truck, you may be able to apply adaptive learning. But for things that don’t come close to existing skill patterns or things you want/need to do really, really well your best bet is to take the time and try the elementary approach.

On a New York City street, a visitor approached a New Yorker and asked “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” The native replied, “Practice, practice, practice.” Good advice, but what if you practice the wrong way? Seems like an obvious question, but it is only on the surface. In my teaching days, practicing the wrong way was ten times worse than not practicing at all, for practicing the wrong way takes you in the oposite direction from your goal, and makes it exponentially harder to learn the right way.

So when you practice picking up your spent brass religiously after ever magazine, or standing still to shoot at a target that is exactly 20 feet away, you are learning skills that may well be counter-productive to your presumed goal of living through a gunfight.

Here’s the problem, though. Train all you like. You’ll never – NEVER – be able to anticipate every situation. Can’t be done. Chaos theory writ large. But what you can do is to try and temper instinct with training and learn to think on your feet. Col. Cooper referred to this as being “situationally-aware.” In other words, you really want to keep those Spidey-senses on call at all times, anticipating what may happen so you’ll know when your training can kick in to maximum effect.

I was once visiting the Fisherman’s Warf district in San Francisco. After dinner, I was walking back to my hotel. Some idiot street performer hid behind a shrub and was jumping out at people to startle them. (Apparently, this passes as “entertainment” in Rice-a-Roni-ville.) He jumped out at me, but didn’t get the response he’d anticipated. Most people jump, scream or run. I instinctively grabbed him by the lapel and shoved him against the wall with my left hand, my right hand drawn back in a fist, ready to deal with what I perceived to be a threat.

The “entertainer” screamed. I relaxed. The crowd looked uncomfortable. (Given their politics, I’m sure they thought I was some warmonger from out of town.) Was I wrong to react the way I did? Nah. Glad I didn’t hit the S.O.B., but even if I had, he’s the one that jumped out at me. I’d call what I did a “measured response.” Your perspective may vary. But I was in my “situationally-aware” mode at the time, as I was concerned about muggers.

If I can amplify RF’s point, “situationally aware” is the only way to try and head disaster off at the pass. Training is great. Training by forging new coordination patterns instead of adapting old ones to a new task is even better. Practicing the wrong things, the wrong way is worse than no practice at all. And by not thinking through what the possible outcomes might be of the practical applications of what may seem like harmless repetition (i.e.: slavishly picking up your spent brass) can get you killed.

4 Responses to Muscle Memory: A Slightly Different Viewpoint

  1. He's called Bushman. It's hilarious, but I totally see where you're coming from.

    -One of your readers who lives in Rice-a-Roni-ville

  2. Very well written and articulated. I enjoyed your article. East Bay Resident at one time and 100% beleive in gun control! The gun control that you have described that is!! And, by the way, I am in the military.

  3. COL. COOPER KNEW WELL THE SUBJECTS OF WHICH HE SPOKE BUT I AM BIAS, HE A FRIEND.

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