Muscle memory

“We’re only tourists in this life.”
— David Byrne
Everybody’s Coming to My House
[From American Utopia]

The breathtaking contemporary sci-fi flick, Oxygen, features French actress Mélanie Laurent’s exceptional performance. As the research scientist Elizabeth Hanson, Laurent awakens enclosed in a high-tech medical chamber barely bigger than a coffin without memory of who she is or why she’s there. Her only company is the computerized Medical Interface Liaison Officer, or M.I.L.O., that answers questions literally without so much as an inference or helpful hint. MILO also does what she asks but exclusively within absolute limits that become clear as the film unfolds. 

Though the Netflix movie runs almost two hours and is pretty much a one-woman show — an in-your-face one, at that — it’s like one of those captivating novels that you can’t put down until the very last page. Laurent’s remarkably authentic performance ranges the expanse of human emotion as she works to unravel the mystery before running out of air. 

While I love the movie, the science at its center contained a common, entirely understandable but bogus idea. 

At a pivotal point in the story, Dr. Hansen shows a rat finding its way through an intricate passageway without a moment’s hesitation or exploration. 

“ . . . our rat, despite never having explored this maze,
already knows the way out.”

Thanks to the injected memory transfer from a fellow rodent who learned the route, the rat found its way through the labyrinth. How could this be? The explanation she offers goes like this: “As emotions are chemical surges taking place in the body in reaction to experiences, they are coded in muscle memories.” 

A common enough term among athletes, dancers, musicians, and in everyday conversations, muscle memory implies that when we learn a physical skill, it gets encoded in our muscles. The online Merriam-Webster dictionary defines this as the ability to repeat a specific muscular movement with improved efficiency and accuracy that is acquired through practice and repetition

This phrase is understandable because it fits what we know; we experience it this way. When we remember how to do something or experience an emotion, our body perceives implicitly, silently, what to do without thought or reflection. Even if we haven’t engaged in it for years, we remember an ability, like riding a bicycle, that we learned long ago . . . in the flesh. 

The definition neatly skirts the everyday meaning and skirts and, thanks to the passive voice, avoids any explanation of how just repeating an action improves it. To imagine muscles can think for themselves, contain memories, or store traumas or other emotions is to miss the point; metaphor does not equal explanation. Our memories are not like cards in a Rolodex, notes in a calendar, or files in a drawer, on a computer drive, or somewhere in the cloud; that isn’t how we work. Though real estate might be all about location, all experiments to localize memory have failed. 

And what about emotion? Feelings are sensations found in particular physical places — gut-wrenching, heartbreaking, a lump in my throat, muscles express and represent ongoing global neurological, hormonal, physiological processes. Much like taking your temperature tells you something about what’s going on everywhere, attitudes are not abstractions; emotions are measures of enaction.

The nervous system does not store memories or feelings in specific locations, neither in your brain nor body. 

It is equally valid that we don’t live or feel in our brains. Subjectivity happens in and through the body; this is somatic reality, the nonreducible truth of life incarnate.   

Can we resist the temptation to discount, dismiss, or replace our essential subjective experience with explanatory notions? Can you let both live side by side? 

There is no mistaking lived experiences for what happens when you scientifically unpack the processes that constitute personal perspective, our lives’ moment-to-moment phenomenology. Instead of either/or duality, we can consider multiple, simultaneous dimensions, remembering that correlation isn’t causation and that there is no such a thing as coincidence.

Or is coincidence all that we can conclude? 

Or . . . ?

When we consider what it means to be human both as a complex continuous neurophysical occurrence and an essential first-person, in-my-skin experience, we benefit from what is unique to each vantage point and gain by the connections we can find between them.

I’m guessing you know what I’m talking about if you have seen the movie. If so, are you also pondering whether the romantic conclusion is delightful or disturbing? 

If you haven’t had a chance, well, I’m not going to spoil the film by saying another word about it. If you enjoy a well-told tale in the form of a fantastically filmed futuristic fable, I hope you’ll get a chance to buckle in for this exhilarating ride. If you feel so moved, would you let me know what you think afterward?

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