How to Teach Your Brain to Skydive
Parachutist, March 2010
You may not realize it but you probably spend a lot of time teaching your brain how to skydive. Dirt dives, creeper practice, and touching emergency handles on the ride to altitude are ways we train our brain to direct our bodies to do what we want it to do while skydiving. Performance is only as good as the training we give out brain, so knowing a little about how the brain learns might improve our skydiving.
First, there is no such thing as “muscle memory”. Muscles have no capacity for remembering; memories are stored in a special place in the brain called the motor cortex. This is where instructions for physical movements, like walking or bringing a coffee cup to our lips are stored. After we learn a task the instructions are committed to the motor cortex so that higher brain functions are free for other tasks. This is why it seems like the muscles themselves remember –information stored in the motor cortex is below conscious awareness.
If the instructions for muscle movements are stored in the motor cortex, where are they learned? This is where things get very interesting and the almost magical powers of the brain come into play. Think about learning how to drive a manual transmission. Three pedals, but only two feet. A steering wheel, turn signals and shift lever, (that can be placed in any of five or six positions), but only two hands to operate them all. All these things must be operated correctly without running into the ditch, sidewalk, or other cars. How does your brain manage all this?
Partly because of something called “memory chunking”. Before learning to operate a manual transmission most people have already mastered automatic transmissions. The brain has already learned what to tell the right leg and foot in order to press the gas and brake pedals and committed it to the motor cortex. That information is stored in a neural network in one “chunk”. Now it is just a matter of adding new learning for operation of the clutch with the left foot, and coordinating pressing the gas pedal.
The brain has to be actively taught how to do this. We have to consciously tell ourselves to use our left foot to depress the clutch, then push the gear level into first, then we concentrate on slowly lifting our foot off the clutch while adding just a bit of gas. And the car stalls. Or surges. Or we concentrate so hard on getting the car moving and we forget to steer. So we try again. And again. Each try brings us a little closer to smoothly operating a manual transmission because bit-by-bit physical instructions move from conscious awareness to the motor cortex.
Another way the brain manages complex motor instructions is to move them farther and farther away from conscious awareness. Once you get the hang of shifting gears you think about it less and less and can concentrate on coordinating the gas and clutch pedals. Soon you can carry on a spirited discussion with a passenger and do not even remember shifting. Really basic muscle chores, like breathing, are learned before birth and the instructions are stored at the bottom of the brain very close to the spinal cord.
However, something else is happening as well, unknown to us because it also occurs below the level of awareness. Our brain is integrating signals from the environment into our learning. Without having to think about it, we know about where the clutch pedal is when the engine begins to power the wheels. We learn what the engine sounds like when the gas pedal is depressed a particular amount. These inputs from the environment are stored in a part of the brain called the sensory cortex and coordinate with information in the motor cortex – all without us even realizing it. Not only is the brain directing particular muscle movements, it is also coordinating them with signals we perceive in the environment. We never have to give a thought to letting up on the gas pedal when the engine starts to race because our brain automatically learns to coordinate the sound we hear with the position of our foot on the gas pedal.
It gets better yet. Years ago a psychologist attached electrodes to the legs of downhill skiers and asked them to simply imagine skiing a particular course. Amazingly, the electrodes detected small electrical impulses from nerves in the legs of the skiers. Not only that, but when the skiers imagined particularly difficult parts of the course the electrical impulses became stronger and more frequent. Since then experiments have shown that simply imagining physical movements activates the same networks of neurons in the motor cortex that are used to actually perform the movement. Simply imaging how you use your body to skydive helps train your brain to skydive for real.
Unfortunately, the effect is very small, but that does not mean that is useless. A huge challenge of skydiving is the distraction from the visceral excitement we all enjoy. This is especially true for low time jumpers, but we all love the excitement of skydiving. Unfortunately that excitement competes with our ability to concentrate on the skydive. The more the motor cortex can direct our physical movements the less we have to think about them and more we can concentrate on things like entering the right slot and remembering whether to turn right or left on the next transition.
Combining imagery with the physical movements we want our brain to learn helps to imprint those movements into the motor cortex. Informal dirt dives are a good way to rehearse the dive and give a little practice to what we plan to do with our upper body, but we practice exactly the wrong things with our legs because we are using them to stand and walk. It is not surprise, then, that legs seem to be the hardest thing to control in freefall. This is why creepers are such a great idea. They allow us to approximate the same arm and leg movements we will use in freefall, and also gives us a realistic picture of what we expect to see, priming our sensory cortex for its role.
However, creepers can give only an approximation of what we expect to do in the air. We use our hands and feet to move the creepers around, don’t have the luxury of the wind blowing our arms and legs back where they belong, (and feeding our sensory cortex with information). This is where imagery pays off. In your mind everything can be exactly as it will be in the air.
On the ride to altitude, spend a little time teaching your brain exactly what you want it to do. Take a few deep breaths, close your eyes, or concentrate on a detail of the container in front of you. Imagine the body movements you will make during the dive, and as you do put a little tension on the muscles you will use. If you are going to extend a leg to make a turn, imagine doing it and simply put tension on the muscles you use to extend your leg. Don’t leave out the rest of your body. As you imagine your body turning, turn your head a bit, approximating the movement of looking towards the center. Think about where your hands and arms are as well as what you see.
Some sports, like tennis, lend themselves to hours of practice with nothing more than a wall, a ball and a racket. Skydiving, on the other hand, is a difficult sport to practice without the aid of a vertical wind tunnel. We are pretty much on our own when it comes to practicing skydiving skills, so anything we can do that approximates the experience of freefall is a valuable learning tool. Using imagery and practicing body movements to improve skydiving performance is not a quick fix or a cure all. Like anything else, it is a skill that becomes more valuable as you learn to use it more effectively. Make it a regular part of your skydiving regimen, integrate into your life as much as possible, and use it to mentally post dive, and you will be a better skydiver than you would be otherwise.
Here are a few tips:
Do not bring more attention to body position mistakes than needed. Coaches and jumpmasters sometimes make the mistake of repeating what they don’t want the student to do. This gets awfully close to teaching the brain to do exactly the wrong thing. “Now don’t extend your leg way out like that. Nope, extending your leg is not a good idea because it will start a turn, so don’t extend your leg.” They do not realize that by bringing so much attention to “don’t extend your leg” they might be teaching the student to do just that. This is especially true with video. Not only does the brain hear “extend your leg”, but it receives visual cues as well. Sometimes in forward, reverse and stop frame. Instead of drawing attention to something you do not what your student to do, bring attention to what you want them to do.
That goes for experienced jumpers as well. It is easy to dwell on a mistake made during a skydive, especially when it results in derision from others on the dive. Rather than dwell on a mistake, acknowledge it, and move on to the positive aspects of the dive. Reliving mistakes only increases the chances of them a happening again. A better response is to practice the correct procedure, both physically and in the imagination, and imagine having done that instead of the mistake. The same thing goes for how we talk to one another after a dive. Keep the negativity to a minimum, and gently suggest what might work better next time.
Make dirt dives and creeper practice as realistic as possible, even to the extent of considering wearing goggles and helmets. Anything on or around your face can be a distraction, so including those things in the sensory inputs your brain receives is a good idea. In addition, it will reveal any changes to what you can see. Dirty, scratched goggles are a distraction only if you are unprepared for them when you put them on right before exit.
Try to acknowledge the movements you make in everyday life that are similar to those you use as a skydiver. Reaching for a wallet in your right hip pocket is much like reaching for a pilot chute. Looking over your shoulder while backing up your car is a lot like clearing your air before deployment. Simply making a conscious observation that these movements are similar to the ones you will do while skydiving helps cement them into the motor cortex and increases the chances of doing them correctly in the air.