Matt Perryman Matt Perryman

Zen and the Art of Squatting, Part I

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I’m not exactly sure where to start this post, because it’s a departure from the straight-up, I did this at the gym kind of thing I normally talk about. I’ll start with a little background.

I have a wide range of nerdly interests outside of weight training. I’ve mentioned that my approach to strength and physical culture came out of my earlier geekiness, but what I don’t talk about often is that my interest in the science of biology doesn’t stop with exercise and nutrition. I don’t want to go into a lot of the personal-philosophy details, mainly because they aren’t very relevant and more importantly, they’re kinda out there, and I don’t want to bog the place down with my wider thoughts.

For now, let it suffice to say that I’m big on neuroscience, how neuro-bio-chemistry relates to psychology, and how both of those relate to physical stress — the universal response to an organism being bothered by its surroundings.

Neuroscience is such a tough field to study because the brain is such a complex critter. Psychology is even harder, because we have to feel out the interaction of a system we don’t understand (the brain) with the environment. As with all poorly-understood science, we have a picture. A very hazy picture, but enough to sketch out rough details. We can say with some confidence where personality, self, and consciousness arise in the brain. We can point to regions that control impulsive behavior, decision making, working memory, language, symbolic reasoning, visual and auditory processing, and motor control, among others.

But we still have a lot of gaps. A whole lot of gaps. How minds arise from that morass of neuronal topology is anyone’s guess at this point. While the materialist view holds that the brain creates the mind through physical processes — minds are what brains do, to quote Marvin Minsky — there’s still a lot of issues with causation.

A prevailing view holds that our brain’s complexity, and thus our intelligence, is grounded in the unconscious control systems that we take for granted. A toddler’s ability to walk, to recognize a face, to throw a ball, to learn a language, we take that for granted. Those abilities are so ingrained in us that we don’t give them a second thought. And yet, researchers in artificial intelligence find that these are the hardest of all problems to solve. You can teach a computer to beat a human at chess, or do math problems faster than any savant. But getting a computer to move a robotic body? Forget it. A lizard can do that job better.

The majority of your everyday walking around and talking and eating and drinking is handled by neurological functions that are off-stage. When’s the last time you paid attention to your breathing, or eye-blinking? How about standing up, or taking a step? These features are unconscious, automatic. We can consciously direct some of them, but that seems to make matters worse. Have you ever tried to learn a new skill, done it right, and then tried to repeat it for an audience? You almost always screw it up, right?

To get good at something, we have to internalize it, take it away from our conscious thinking and let the neurological firmware do it’s thing. Skills and behaviors become habitual with practice. This isn’t just a figure of speech, either. When you first pick up a new skill — any skill, it can be a new language, a musical instrument, or a clean & jerk — the early changes are neurological. The brain starts firing different networks of nerves, trying to figure out how to make your muscles coordinate in just the right way, to clear out a new path in the woods as it were.

With regular practice, this rapid-learning phase lasts one to two months. And then it stops. Why? The early-stage neurological changes are done, and the brain has physically rewired itself. Neuronal plasticity, this is called — neurons grow new connections and the skill writes itself in like a software patch. Repetition creates physical changes in the brain.

The brain regions which govern the stress response (and which create changes throughout the rest of your body) are equally trainable. How do I know this? See for yourself. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) regulates the growth of new neurons in certain regions of the brain, and is highly responsive to exercise. Exercise-induced changes in BDNF are linked to improvements in mood, in metabolic status, and cognitive task performance (specifically it seems to improve working memory and motor learning). BDNF also responds well to calorie restriction, which may explain some reported benefits of low-carb diets.

What you do is what you become. Neurochemistry influences behavior, but we’re not slaves to that. We can make deliberate changes, and when we do this, the brain adapts. There are limits certainly; just that the limits we assume may be temporary — a result of being under-prepared, under-trained, and out of shape for the training — and correctable with effort.

Right about now, you’re probably wondering what this has to do with Zen or squatting, since I’ve mentioned neither. I have a point, I swear; but I think this is a good stopping point, so I’ll continue next time.

Part II