I hate the term “muscle memory.” Your muscles have no more memory than your bones. Your mind controls your muscles, both on the conscious (rational, thinking) and subconscious (instinctive, reactive) level. It’s an odd and inherently dynamic partnership. Sometimes you consciously control your movements, sometimes you don’t. Even when you consciously decide to move your muscles you’re not normally conscious of doing so. In terms of armed self-defense, the dichotomy can easily become a die-chotomy. Will you respond to a lethal threat with “muscle memory” or will you able to think your way through a challenge to life and limb? The best possible answer is “yes” . . .
I’ve got nothing against repetitive training for armed self-defense. I do it all the time. I’m no Massad Ayoob, but I can now remove my gun from my holster and bring it to bear on a target PDQ, regardless of what I’m wearing or what position I’m in. Without thinking about it.
By “it” I mean the physical act of unholstering. Because I begin the process of unholstering by making a conscious decision to unholster my gun. In other words, I make a choice to get out my gun and then my subconscious controls my muscles to enable a suitable physical response.
I consciously decide to do it consciously. Because if and when I’m in a situation that requires armed self-defense, I don’t want to operate on pure instinct.
If you “let” your subconscious mind react to a lethal threat without conscious control or intervention you could suddenly find yourself taking the wrong course of action. Attacking when you should run. Running when you should attack. Or doing nothing when you should run or attack.
The wrong “answer” in a potentially deadly confrontation could be fatal. By the same token, failing to consciously alter your strategy in response to changing environmental stimuli (e.g., the bad guy suddenly sees you) could be equally catastrophic. To increase the odds of staying alive, you need to think. To run ye olde OODA loop (Observe Orient Decide Act).
Ah, but will you? I believe most people have a genetic predisposition to freeze in the face of life-threatening danger. I also believe OpFam (Operational Familiarity) training can combat combat paralysis and increase just about anyone’s OODA Loop’s efficiency and speed. But the bottom line remains the same: either you’ll think your way out of trouble or you won’t.
And here’s the really freaky thing: if you strategize on the conscious level during a DGU chances are you won’t remember doing it. Memory works differently under stress. Post incident, most people recall “flashes” of what happened rather than a linear progression of events. They don’t remember their thought process, or even that they had one.
That’s a hell of a reason to STFU after a DGU. It’s also a good indication that you shouldn’t put all your existential eggs in the basket marked “muscle memory.” If you believe that your training will kick-in during a DGU, that you will (and should) react instinctively and that’s about it, you run the risk of giving your subconscious free rein. Again, that may or may not be in your best interest.
And yet most firearms training tries to create “no brainer” or instinctive armed self-defense strategies. I reckon that once you get your armed self-defense-related movements down (drawing, clearing the gun, lining-up the sights, etc.), training should be about thinking. Every single shot should be the result of a conscious decision. Any exercise that encourages you to think is good. Any training that makes you into an automaton is bad.
Not to put too fine a point on it, the whole idea of muscle memory is a trap. If you rely on on muscle memory, if you train yourself to rely on it, you could end up being no more successful in a DGU than someone who’s never trained at all. Maybe less.