Muscle Memory and Visualization
© 2014 FrontLine Security (Vol 9, No 3)

The mind is the most powerful tool we have at our disposal, and its abilities shouldn’t be taken for granted. Memories stored in our brain constitute a large part of who we are, and our long-term memory allows us to memorize not only facts, but also repetitive physical movements. This is known as muscle memory, or motor learning, a type of procedural memory that is developed by programming a specific motor task or movement into the brain’s memory through repetition. Indeed, muscle memory doesn’t refer to memories stored in our muscles, as the name might suggest, but to memories stored in our brains as a cache of regularly enacted tasks for our muscles.

Any task that improves with practice and becomes automatic, is likely to use muscle memory. Some vocations require repetitive training to develop muscle memory or automatic responses. This is especially the case for frontline workers where unhesitating action can make the difference between life and death during crisis response or search and rescue missions.  

Building muscle memory can take varying lengths of time depending on several factors, including the level of difficulty of the task or movement, whether a previous muscle memory needs to be overwritten to allow for the new one, how often the task is repeated, and how alert the person is while learning the task.

Every time we learn a new task, thought or movement, a string of neurons (nerve cells) connect to form a neural pathway in the brain. These neurons are the building blocks of the nervous system, transmitting information through the body via neural pathways. Sensory neurons send information from the muscles to the brain, and motor neurons relay commands back to the muscles.

Neural pathways are feeble during the beginning learning stages of a new task, but each time that pathway is used, it is reinforced. The stronger the pathway, the easier the task, until it can be performed without conscious effort.

This process can be explained by the psychological model of competence, which comprises four stages: (1) unconscious incompetence; (2) conscious incompetence; (3) conscious competence; and (4) unconscious competence. Training that involves muscle memory is perfectly suited for ­progression from the second to fourth stage of competence – the ability to be competent without effort. Repetition training, kinesthetic training, and visualization all play an important role in achieving the top goal of unconscious competence.

Repetition Training
The old Latin proverb: ‘Repetitio est mater studiorum’ (Repetition is the mother of learning) is an apt observation that spawned the most widespread and commonly used method of learning and training for many professions. As an example, Firefighters have frequent routine emergency training drills in order to prepare them for real emergencies. Guy Pedliham of the London Fire Department (UK) says, “When I joined, during basic training there was a lot of repetition – throwing up ladders, tying knots under pressure, etc. Many are 3- or 4-person drills, so you had to also repeat the various roles within that.”

Any individual can choose a task or a motion to perfect and, if they persevere with training, they will achieve a level of programming that will allow them to carry out that motion flawlessly, expeditiously and, ultimately, unconsciously. Problems only arise when the person programs themselves to do something incorrectly, or when they find a better way to do it afterwards. This not only wastes the original training, but can make it difficult to reprogram the brain to accept the new method.

By habituating repetition with a desired movement or task, our minds are able to recognize the desired task and react more effectively and swiftly in scenarios that trigger the programming. “Gaining muscle memory and utilizing it in crisis situations is a critical element for first responders,” says Dr. Richard Gasaway, founder of Situational Awareness Matters, a consulting and teaching organization dedicated to improving decision-making in stressful environments. “It’s important that first responders are trained through some sort of mental management program to help build knowledge of situational awareness and to better prepare them mentally for dangerous situations,” he explains.

Kinesthetic Training
Kinesthetic training is an expansion of ­repetition training. By deliberately focusing on the exact muscles or muscle groups performing the action, the brain makes a stronger and more direct connection. ­Subsequently, the brain will immediately activate the required muscles when confronted with a trigger situation. For even greater effect, the method can be practiced with a blindfold to ensure that the brain is not distracted by visual information.

Firefighters in Glynn County, Georgia, shown here training ‘blind’ with heads covered to simulate the lack of visibility in a burning building and also to enhance their other senses and improve their “muscle memory” and reaction speed in ­dangerous scenarios. (Photo: Chris MacLean)

Imitation is the first method of learning we acquire, and one of the most basic. Two-thirds of our brain’s electrical activity is ­dedicated to sight, and estimates suggest it is the preferred method of learning for 40% of the population. Mirror neurons in the brain, a recent discovery in the field of neuroscience, may help account for this. These neurons are active both when a person carries out an action, as well as when they merely observe an action. Some scientists claim that we are able to fortify the neural connections governing a certain movement just by observing that movement, or even visualizing it. Therefore, repeated visualization makes for another accessible training method for helping first responders develop muscle memory.

Training Strategies
First responders can perform to the best of their ability only with continuous training in a diverse set of scenarios that reflect the unpredictability of real-life situations. Therefore, they should be trained in the same repetitive and exhaustive manner used to prepare ­federal and military affiliations. Through such repetitive and continual training, first responders can be trained to respond quickly, relying on muscle memory and ­skillfully executed tactics. By incorporating certain muscle memory strategies into training, they can become better prepared for any critical event.

Fast response time. Responding to an incident in a prompt and timely manner is the first important step. Suitable training through repetition, visualization, or kinesthetic training helps guarantee the responder is prepared to act as soon as they arrive on scene. Stephen Hines, who works for the Ambulance Service, cites CPR and carrying people down stairs as two tasks requiring fast response time, which are improved through repetitive training.

Efficient and organized communication. Responders must not only possess the proper equipment for organized communication, but also have adequate training to use it appropriately depending on the situation. It is also important that they have a comprehensive understanding of communication protocols and have practiced these.

Unified command. A unified command structure is essential when two or more independent agencies respond to a scene. This assures a collaborative effort and response. It also facilitates information allocation and circumstantial alertness. This is crucial when an incident needs cooperation from both fire and police lines, for example, and for maintaining the proper chain of command between agencies.

Training Exercises and Scenarios
Many powerful mental management training programs have been designed to build first responders’ muscle memory and situational awareness. During these programs, several scenarios are enacted to help professionals prepare for dire situations. “I operate a Mental Management of Emergencies program for first responders, packed with scenarios that will resonate in the first responder community,” explains Dr. Gasaway. “I combine my 22 years of expertise and extensive research on mental management, and present material and create scenarios that is catastrophically important for all responders.”

Fire and rescue personnel often participate in response exercises that explore various scenarios. These exercises help in the preparation of protocols for responding efficiently and effectively in emergency situations. For example, in the scenario of an unknown chemical spill, fire and rescue are trained to evaluate the situation and work to identify the chemical(s) and hazard potential. After the spill is stabilized, scene control reverts back to an agency that ­specializes in chemical clean ups. This scenario also gives personnel the opportunity to test the notification process for incidents, thereby helping agencies ­colla­borate in emergencies.

Another training scenario is the forcible entry repetition challenge for firefighters on commercial doors. During training, firefighters are trained to gap a door, set the position for the door to open, and force it open using the necessary equipment. They are trained to force open commercial doors through repetitive training, which in turn helps them gain muscle memory.

Numerous scenarios like these help build muscle memory for the many critical situations faced by responders. With time and practice, they become comfortable with the process, developing calm mannerisms and a strong understanding of protocols. Based on the muscle memory they have developed, they are able to assess and respond to each situation in real-time and further improve the speed of their responses. The end result of such intensive training is first responders who can respond quickly, calmly and effectively to any given situation.

Dr Nicola Davies is a psychologist and writer with an interest in the psychology behind frontline work.
© FrontLine Security 2014