I want to pick up on an aspect of the master’s path I wrote about last week, and that’s the role of memory. Or rather, how difficult it is to form certain types of memory, particularly muscle memory and that automaticity that can go along with being in “flow.”

Tonight I was again getting back on the path of reviving my musical interests (somewhere between the paths of hacking and mastery) while my partner was playing on the computer. As I was winding down she joked “how about some Stairway to Heaven?”  The funny thing is, I could immediately play a jazzy improv version of StH, followed by a bluegrassy version, followed by the straight version. It was probably the cleanest piece I played all night. I swear I haven’t played any of those in years, and even then just once in a blue moon while goofing around. Stairway to Heaven was one of the first “real” guitar pieces I learned when I picked up the instrument in high school (and who in my generation didn’t learn that as part of their repertoire?), and I remember drilling away at it all summer, hours on end.

Most of us have probably heard the “10,000 hour rule” popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers, based on research by Anders Ericsson. Without picking apart the details, Ericsson claims that one needs about 10,000 hours of focused practice to acquire a skill to the point the rest of us would recognize as “master level.”  I should go back and read Ericsson’s original writings on expertise rather than popular interpretations of his ideas – I’d like to understand more about the, well, recalcitrance (if that’s the right word) of the human brain/nervous system to ingrain new patterns.

Huh. I realize my memory of some basic educational psychology has faded over the years since graduate school (somehow, I can’t recall classic readings on demand the way I can pop up with Stairway to Heaven).  But I remember a more-or-less evolutionary argument for why our systems are biased toward a certain conservatism.  With notable exceptions (e.g., the single trial learning that occurs the first time one encounters a hungry tiger), humans are creatures of habit.  A major section of Alva Noe’s book Out of Our Heads: Why you are not your brain and other lessons from the biology of consciousness dealt with habit, and how we probably couldn’t get through the day without most of our activities being automated, a function of subconscious habit. We simply can’t handle that much complexity in real time without “off-loading” the processing to other, more automatic parts of our brain/bodies. Imagine, to use a really dumb example, what would happen if you had to consciously remember to draw each breath!  Then coordinate – as a toddler – swinging one leg forward, transferring your weight, swinging the next leg forward… and don’t forget to breathe!  Oh, and look ahead!

Hmmm… it’s late and I don’t have a lot of mojo for writing (still on the once-a-week kick, though!), so perhaps I’ll come back to this mid-week.  Mainly, though, I’m seeing that the path of mastery (lots of persistence and focused practice) is rooted deeply in our physiology. Cursing and wishing it wasn’t so… well, that expresses some frustration, and then it’s back to practice.

I do want to hang out with this idea of practice.  There’s an idea from Aristotle that goes roughly “we become that which we practice being.”  I’m particularly interested in the non-school activities of kids nowadays, and what they “practice” throughout the day, both in semi-formal settings (sports teams, after-school clubs, street gangs) and in less well-structured settings. More on that later.


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