Third time’s…the charm?

“Ladies, ladies! If you could please stop effing up the sequence, I only have so much memory in the camera.”

I craned my neck to look up at the cameraman. It’s difficult to look at a standing person when you’re lying on the floor on your back with your legs in the air. Amanda unwrapped her arm from around my thigh and looked up at him, too.

Antonio set down his camera. “Look. You kick, you block and return, you grab her leg and put her on the ground. Very simple.”

The problem wasn’t that Amanda and I couldn’t remember our routine; the problem was that we couldn’t remember whose turn it was to do what. It had already been a long week, and neither of us had the mental capacity at that moment to be learning sports. But we had to try: due to the law of I-Always-Get-Myself-In-Way-Further-Than-I-Initially-Intended, I now find myself as part of the seed pair for Antonio’s new women’s muay thai team. Hence the video: the club uses videos on Facebook for recruitment purposes.

One thing I like about muay thai training at this gym is that Antonio, the muay thai coach, is very, very serious about sparring rules. If you’re moving too fast instead of concentrating on precision, he will stop you. If you’re using anything above 30% power, he will stop you. This is very different from the sparring club for boxing, where the instructor slaps some protective gear on people and then lets them go apeshit on each other. Apparently no one has gotten badly hurt yet in the sparring club, but I’m thinking that’s nothing but a dandy stroke of luck.

Not that I never get bruises. We may only be kicking at 30% power, but we’re still kicking each other 200 times in the exact same spot. I’ve got a nice set of blue ones up the outside of my thigh right now.

Luckily, this has happened before. It happened when I first started kicking the heavy bag, too. It hurts, and there are bruises. The instructor says “That goes away. You just have to condition yourself.” I didn’t believe him that time. I looked down at my purpled shins and retorted “It’s just skin and bone! There’s nothing to condition there!” Sure enough, though, it did stop hurting, and I did stop getting bruised.

The same thing happened with foam rollers. For those unfamiliar, a foam roller is a cylindrical device used to release adhesions in your muscles after a workout so you will not experience so much post-workout soreness. The first time you use one, it feels like torture—you would gladly take the soreness over the feeling of rolling. You feel that way the second time, too, and maybe the third. But eventually, I swear, it does stop hurting so much.

This has proven true for a lot of things that I wouldn’t have considered actual conditioning—holding a barbell, picking up a barbell in the crook of your elbow, working out without shoes on. The plasticity of the human body is pretty amazing. Your muscles are not the only part of you that can get better at stuff.

The most interesting thing about this to me, though, isn’t the plasticity of bones or skin or connective tissue—it’s the plasticity of the human brain.

I coxed my first starboard-stroked boat on October 2, 2008. Until then I had only ever coxed a standard port rig (in which the oar of the rower in front of me extends out to my left, the one behind her to my right, and so on down the boat all the way to the bow). When I got into the boat this time, the stroke seat had a starboard oar. (The stroke seat was also MHR, whose far-reaching reputation for impatience with coxswains scared the shit out of me). When the boat is starboard-rigged, you point and move the boat left and right with different rowers than in a port-rigged boat, and I felt sure that I could never, ever learn to switch back and forth between port and starboard-rigged boats in my brain: I would always just be able to do a port-rigged boat, and anything else would always take extra time at best—or at worst, I’d tap port meaning to tap starboard and ram us into a tree.

By that spring, though, it had stopped being any problem at all. And our coach did not limit himself to standard port rig and standard starboard rig, either; we did bucket rigs, a double bucket rig (only once), and, for one really stupid experiment, this weird rig where both the stroke and the seven rowed on the same side (again, thank God, only once). As many problems as some of these rigs had, the problem was no longer that I didn’t know who to have tap it in various situations. I had adapted.

The same has proven true for programming languages. A programmer who has only ever programmed in one language feels intimidated by the prospect of learning a second one. But after that, the time it takes to pick up a new language drops from a month, to two weeks, to a week.

Of course, all of this is obvious. This is the whole idea behind learning, right? With practice, cognitive tasks become easier. However, just as I assumed that conditioning only worked on the muscles and not on other parts of the body, I think we tend to view the plasticity of the brain as a characteristic exclusive to its cognitive functions—and not its other functions.

For example, my negative emotional reaction to being fired had dropped off significantly by the third time it happened. By the fourth time it happened, I felt almost no anxiety. The same has been true for me with romantic rejection: the first time, it really, really sucks. The second time, it’s sad, but it passes. The third time it’s mildly annoying, and the fourth time it just comes in stride.

I wonder if the same principles hold true for other things: receiving injections (as one does when vaccinated), taking a particular insult, getting shot at. I’m tempted to hypothesize that there’s a threshold past which the result isn’t habituation, but rather traumatization. I suspect that that threshold differs between people. I wonder where mine is. I wonder if epigenetic changes from parents’ and grandparents’ traumas raise or lower a person’s threshold.

I’m interested to know if you’ve noticed this three-times-habituation response. I can’t imagine it’s just me.

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