Practice is the exchange between two ages of the brain.

Let me elaborate.

The cerebellum sits at the base of your skull like a walnut the size of a giant walnut. It is the command center for motor function. It is a very old and primal part of the brain, shared by most, if not all, animal species. It is commonly referred to as the reptilian brain. It is thought that this is where muscle memory is stored (primarily, at least).

We don’t have a conscious relationship with this part of the brain. We don’t have deliberate access to it the way we have a access to our thoughts or memories. We can’t communicate with it directly–in this sense, it seems to have a certain autonomy. When you walk, you don’t have to “think” about it. All you have to do is decide to walk, then your muscle memory comes online and requires very little chaperoning–intervention is only required for things like adjusting speeds so you don’t have to walk shoulder to shoulder with a stranger and say something because for a moment you are walking as if you were friends. Imagine trying to carry on that insincere conversation while you had to micromanage all of the hundreds of synchronous movements that it requires to take a step. Lift leg slightly, compensate for balance with other leg, swing shin forward, smile, start controlled fall forward with upper body, gauge distance to pavement, scan for obstruction, laugh too hard at something they say in order to seem agreeable, square ankle with pavement, prepare heel for impact, etc. This is describing what it is like for a toddler to learn how to walk. There is a very precarious calibration involved, which why they fall so damn much. It’s not just hard for them to use their muscles in a new way, it’s computationally hard to coordinate all of the muscles involved. It’s a lot of information.

The neocortex, which sits like a wrinkly hat on top of other brain structures including the cerebellum, is much more recently evolved than our reptilian brain. Neo=new. The neocortex is uniquely mammalian. This part of the part is thought to be responsible for higher cognition such as planning, language, abstract thinking, and conscious decision-making.

When you make a conscious decision to practice an action over and over, it is sort of like your neocortex programming your cerebellum. It is tediously hammering the instructions into it until they are deeply imprinted–so deeply that you can’t access it consciously anymore. The control of the action has trickled from the conscious neocortex to unconscious cerebellar muscle memory. This is what I meant by two ages of the brain. It is as if the newly evolved part of your brain is tediously teaching the formerly evolved part–tediously teaching it just like your dad teaching you to play Für Elise and audibly sighing with deep disappointment until you finally play without any mistakes, at which point, he leaves you and finally goes to make dinner.


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I know my explanation of brain functions was crudely oversimplified and also probably wrong. If you can educate me or have a different opinion, please leave a comment. Let’s talk about it.


2 thoughts on “practice

  1. I don’t know much about it, but “control” is something people concerned with motor control and robotics spend a lot of time considering. Control theory is a framework for thinking about the dynamical side of some of the questions you bring up. You might be interested in the link:

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