Miercoles con los Amigos Invisibles vol. 16: Practice makes permanent

Back in high school, I used to look over people's shoulders and notice them writing out the lyrics to their favorite songs. The first couple of times this happened, I'd think "oo! other people obsessively writing poetry, just like me!" When I realized this wasn't the case, I was a little disappointed. Still, there was something comforting about it. These were young people who, like me, sought refuge in the magical power of beautiful words. But instead of floundering around trying to cobble together words of their own, they went and got the best, most moving words they could find, and wrote them out from memory. Took the guesswork out of it, I suppose.

Earlier this wake-time I had to go online to look up the lyrics to Bob Dylan's "Positively 4th Street" so that I could write them down to help me memorize them. I've recently learned how to play it on the guitar. But since the complete song isn't in the Dylan songbook I got for Xmas, and I want to memorize it, I needed to copy the words out by hand. It was kind of a trip down memory lane to those old high school days, since I haven't written out a set of song lyrics I didn't actually come up with in a long, long time. It got me thinking about the power of reciting things or writing things down, rather than just listening to them.

You may have run across the psychological factoid that writing down information improves memory retention. I forget where the exact percentages fall, but it's lowest for something you heard or saw passively, next highest for something you wrote down or repeated after hearing or seeing it, and highest of all for something you then explained to a second person. As a psychologist who recently did some work on the topic put it: "The act of retrieving information actually improves memory because you are practicing a skill. And that's the exact same skill you are going to need to retrieve that information again and again."

So writing down something you know, even something you've got memorized, is the mental equivalent of muscle memory. Retrieving certain bits of information in a certain relationship to one another becomes a habit, more firmly encoded in your synapses with each use. The habits of thought that allow me to remember the words to a song I know aren't too different from the habits of muscle memory that allow my fingers to switch positions from one chord to another on the neck of the guitar. Of course the particular neurons getting worn into a groove by these habits reside in different locations in my skull, but they're undergoing the exact same kind of process.

But here's where I get a little teleological, and venture into metaphor.

I choose to train the muscles in my fingers to take up particular positions. Then, once those habits are established, I train them to move back and forth between one set of positions and the next. Once I get one sequence firmly embedded in muscle memory, I'm eager to move onto the next set, and the next after that. I do this because I want to use my smart little fingers to make particular sounds with the strings of my guitar. The more muscle memory procedures I've got encoded, the more sounds I can make. And, as with any muscular system, the more I make use of the muscles in question, the stronger they become. My body feeds them more nutrients to keep up with their increasingly demanding workload.

So let's say that my classmates in high school were doing something similar. They wanted to train their minds to follow a pattern of ideas the way I'm trying to train my fingers to follow a pattern of positions on guitar strings. The analogy isn't exact, because the ideas exist entirely inside the mind, while the fingers are being trained to the shape of an instrument which lies outside the body.

However, ideas in a person's mind do have an effect on that person's brain, which in turn has a sometimes profound effect on what is happening in the body. When a person's emotional state transforms, it does so through a shift in the balance of chemicals and hormones that determine how the body regulates itself and responds to its environment. So instead of fingers touching strings that produce sounds from a guitar, we have ideas touching emotions that produce changes in the brain. Just as repeated practice sharpens muscle memory into habit, and habit into reflex, repeated practice sharpens recall into habits of thought. And, eventually, into mental reflexes, in other words--beliefs.

This is the reason behind teachers telling misbehaving students to write out sentences on a chalkboard, the reason behind the rote prayers or call-and-response segments in religious services. A simple statement can carry a profound weight of emotion behind it. Repeated often enough, the statement becomes a habit of thought, and the habit of thought can become so reflexive the mind perceives it as fact.

But unlike a guitar, a personality makes music only its inhabitant can truly appreciate. Two people standing right next to each other may attach different emotions to the same words. The same prayer recited by one person might be the emotional equivalent of a Bach sonata, while the other person might be experiencing the emotional equivalent of a snarling, woeful track by Alice in Chains. It's easy, far too easy, for me to assume you're getting out of my favorite set of words the same ideas, the same emotions that I get. You might be getting a jolt of meaningless static, nothing at all. You might be getting nails dragged down a chalkboard. The only way I can have any idea is to ask about it--and even then, unless we both step back and discuss what we mean by the words we are using, we might be talking about two different things the entire time.


Curator said...

Hello. I wonder if you know - that photograph is a picture of an exit sign in Sparks, Nevada, the saddest place in the entire country in its way, sadder than poor, fat Mississippi even, because at least Mississippi has a past. Sparks is just this immensely sad, unanchored wasteland. Poor without hope - not even really religious (no Pentacostal church every few blocks like you see in other poor places) because even that would be a glimmer of hope or pleasure.

Lovely essay.

Fiat Lex said...

Hello Curator, and welcome! I was not aware where the sign was actually from--thanks for letting me know. And thanks for taking the time to comment; I'm glad you liked the post!

When I put images on my blog, I usually Google image search for a keyword having to do with my post. Then I sort of hunt around in the results until I find one I like.

This image keeps up my streak of coincidental appropriateness. For example, the Ravens picture I put up on Football Friday 1 actually shows Trevor Pryce blocking a pass from the Titans--it might actually be from the game Nancy talked about on her blog. Didn't know it at the time. And the scary lady from the end of Tuesdays 44 is actually a b&w of Mombi from the Oz books--the evil sorceress who had a closet full of different heads for different occasions. Apt for the subject matter!

As for this post--I think few interpersonal situations are sadder or more bleak than those cause by the type of miscommunication where two people are using the same words to describe totally different experiences.