A Focus On Conscious Thought vs. Muscle Memory


Our brain has two major ways of thinking and recalling information. They go by many different names. The first type is conscious thought. That basically covers everything that you hear your brain saying to you. The voice that you have of yourself in your mind is conscious. The second kind  of thought is instinct/muscle memory/long term memory/snap judgement. That covers all the things you do that you could control and think about, but don’t.

Both ways of thinking and recalling work well for different purposes. Conscious thought is really good for learning, observing, and correcting errors and mistakes. It is what we use to solve complex math problems, to learn a new concept, to find errors, or any other logical step by step process. The problem with conscious thought is that it can hold very little information at one time, and is really slow. It’s great for taking your time and going slow, or for checking your work.

Muscle Memory, or the other type of thinking, involves recalling information from memory. It is really good at being extremely fast, sorting through huge amounts of information quickly and discarding anything it doesn’t find relevant. Using your times tables, throwing a ball, spelling most words, typing, are all examples of this type of thinking. When you throw a ball you are not considering a majority of the action involved in throwing the ball. Your conscious thought is probably just, “throw it to that guy.” But the arm and body movement are recalled.

It is important to understand these two ways the brain works because it will help us each to learn and practice. The idea of working slow when learning a technique is used by musicians all around the world, and also in all of the Pa Kua classes. A technique in four steps gives us something to think about that is not too overwhelming for our conscious thought, and that we can then repeat. If we start thinking about the four steps, and add in thinking about the leg position, the height of your stance, the distance with your partner, and so on then you will have a lot of trouble doing anything at all because your conscious thought becomes overwhelmed and shuts down. So we rely on repetition to commit some steps to muscule memory. Repeat the technique and think about the 4 steps, ignoring all else. When you can do the technique without being conscious of the 4 steps, then think about distance and power. Repeat a lot. Think about height. Repeat a lot more. Think about angle and step. Repeat a lot. Think about grace and fluidity. Repeat a lot.

Each time we repeat the movement thinking about a small set of things we can improve those pieces and commit them to memory. Then when we move on to the next pieces we can build up and improve something else. This is how we learn new techniques, and then how we improve them for the rest of our lives.

I hope that this can help each of you find a way not to overwhelm your conscious thought with too much information, and trust that each step and repetition is working.

I was inspired to write this post from this video, which you should all go and watch.

“The painter who draws merely by practice and by eye, without any reason, is like a mirror which copies every thing placed in front of it without being conscious of their existence.”

-Leonardo de Vinci

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