Sunday, January 11, 2009

Muscle Memory

During our recent wide spread power outage here in New Hampshire, I had the unexpected opportunity to experience first had the muscle memory phenomenon. For those not familiar with this term, there are two basic types of muscle memory, fine and gross motor skills. Fine motor skills can be described by such activity as brushing one’s teeth, writing or typing. While gross motor skills involve our large body parts. In this case we develop gross motor skills when we practice skills involving sports, playing a musical instrument, driving, and yes, riding a motorcycle.

I was mesmerized by the habits we form over time, and how practice conditions us to perform movement without conscious thought. During our days without electricity, and despite my intellectual awareness that we had no power, my arm consistently reached for the light switch each time I entered a dark room. It was then that I decided to conduct an experiment. I wanted to see how long it would take me to break this habit. While breaking the habit to reach for the light switch, I was unconsciously developing a new habit. This one was getting up in the morning, walking to the space heater and warming my legs while I waited for water to boil for coffee. My realization that I had just developed a new habit came when I stood before the space heater for warmth, despite the fact that my intellect knew it had run out of fuel and was stone cold.

This eye opening lesson gave me an acute awareness that we can develop habits good and bad through repetition. While I was trying to break one by concentrating on breaking it, I had developed another without even thinking about it. In the experiment I mentioned above, it took me five days to break the “reach for the switch” habit. This is good news to me. Practice can condition my gross motor skills in a much shorter time frame then I had imagined. The bad news is that I can develop a bad habit just as quickly.

It occurred to me that this past fall I had kept myself from serious harm because I had been consistently practicing a skill I may someday need. The skill I have been practicing, I learned in the motorcycle safety course. This is it: Do not focus on the obstacle you want to avoid, but look for the escape, a hole if you will, that will take you trough and around the obstacle. My husband and I often pull into large vacant parking lots just to “practice” motorcycling skills. I thought we were just doing this to show off to one another, although we were at times serious about a particular maneuver. What I didn’t realize was that our “fun” was training us to perfect a skill, just as playing ball with your child for fun also develops their talent for the sport, while improving their gross motor skills.

The “find the hole” practice maneuver saved my skin this past fall, if not my wallet. While traveling in the middle of a group of vehicles, the one directly ahead of me decided to hard brake and take a sudden right turn without signaling. The move was unexpected and I found myself hard braking to avoid collision. In the racing that your mind does under such times, it was in that flash of moment that I realized I did not know how close the car behind me was. To avoid hitting the car ahead, breaking too hard that would lead to going down, or becoming sandwiched between the two, I looked for the hole, accelerated and got around and through the hazard. Too bad the officer just ahead did not appreciate me exceeding the speed limit or my explanation why.

Fast forward to my court date, and the expression on the face of a very large, non-motorcycling female judge who did not understand or believe the “avoid the obstacle” maneuver taught in the motorcycle safety course. Add to that two officers who also do not ride and you have people in our court system that need some training and awareness themselves. Despite the fact that my explanation was not accepted, I still feel $100 is a small price to pay for my life. The practice I have been doing for fun saved my skin and possibly my life. The local EMT’s were spared scraping me off the pavement, while also sparing too drivers from the emotional trauma of hitting me.

I will be doing more parking lot play to cement the large motor skills required for motorcycling so that when needed, my muscle memory will take over in an emergency. I will also be watching carefully for any bad habits I may have developed over time. These are often more difficult to identify unless we make a conscience effort. As I learned this winter, bad habits have muscle memory as well. I have taken out my rider training manual. In looking it over, it is evident that this should be a regular habit too. I encourage anyone new, or returning to motorcycling to take the rider safety course. Don’t stop there, invite your friends to join you for “fun” in a large empty parking lot and challenge each other to the practice skills which can be found in the manual. The muscle memory you develop from such play can save your life.

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