“You will go to the Dagobah system. There you will learn from Yoda, the Jedi master who instructed me.”
With Yoda dying as Luke returned to Dagobah in 4 ABY, it seems unlikely that Luke ever trained again. And yet, by Episode VI, he’s progressed and is controlling the Force pretty well (like, Force-choke well). He’d come pretty far on his own, even though it’s debatable that his skills could hold up in comparison to the old Jedi Knights. The progress he made on his own contradicts the classical Jedi training model regardless of his pre-existing talent and potential. But this progress can actually be explained by science (and decidedly not by midi-chlorians), and a concept called memory consolidation.
The training sequence is no stranger to anyone who’s seen a movie in the last 50 years. They all tend to follow the same formula: our humble protagonist is confronted with an insurmountable goal (defeat the Empire), finds a mentor (Yoda, before that Obi-wan), starts training in an isolated place (Dagobah, before that the Falcon), has a few setbacks (cave vision, loses his hand), makes progress, and is finally deemed ready to meet the challenge.
We’ve seen this same formula so many times that it’s become cliché. And yet, we consume and enjoy them, and find ourselves instantly in the protagonist’s corner as we watch. There’s something so fundamentally human about a training sequence, and I’ve always wondered why they appeal so much to us. I like to think that it’s because we’ve all been there before. And in fact, we have: training sequences closely mirror how we actually learn new physical skills.
How our brains learn new physical skills
When you learn a new physical task, your brain forms an “internal model” of all the muscle movements and physical forces you used to learn it. The internal model is a neural representation of all the physical properties of the task, and is what is typically referred to as a motor memory. The more you practice, the stronger the internal model becomes. Strengthening the internal model means that you’ll better retain the task and perform it with more expertise when you return to the context you learned it in.
Rather than consisting of strictly physical properties, Luke’s internal model of The Force would include energetic properties. That means that from the very beginning when he was training with Obi-Wan, he was learning the properties of that energetic field; its boundaries, the energetic force it applies on objects, and the energetic force it applies back on the user. However, this tiny amount of training and the internal model of The Force it yielded did not include the ability to control it. Training with Yoda strengthened his internal model, extending his skills to be able to lift rocks and his submerged X-wing at the same time.
An internal model or motor memory continues to change after it’s initially formed. Other than being strengthened through practice, it can also evolve on its own through a process known as memory consolidation. This process clears away unimportant internal models and memories and strengthens important ones. When you first step away from a task you’ve just learned, your new internal model gets thrown in with internal models of other tasks that already exist in your brain. Your new internal model carries the same strength as other new or long-unpracticed internal models. As you practice the new task, its internal model starts carrying more importance. Your brain then gets the cue to clear away the unnecessary internal models and memories, which it often does during sleep. You then end up with more neural processing power to devote to your new task, enabling you to build on the internal model and gain more expertise.
On Dagobah, Yoda tells Luke that he must unlearn what he has learned to be able to progress in his knowledge of The Force. Because his internal model of The Force is still so new, he’s being told to stop practicing his non-Force tasks to allow his memories of the Force to consolidate. This is the reason why training sequences take place in such isolated places; the trainee is put in a place where the only thing they can practice is their target task. Too many different tasks being practiced in the same context would have led to competing internal models, and none of them would have reached expertise. For example, if he’d practiced shooting blasters at the same time as he practiced The Force, it would have interfered with the consolidation of both internal models.
From getting zapped by lasers to Force-choking in just two movies
When Luke leaves Dagobah, he continues to use The Force. His continued practice gains him more control, and brings him from losing his hand to Darth Vader at the end of The Empire Strikes Back to Force-choking guards at Jabba’s Palace in The Return of the Jedi. With a year or so of unguided practice under his belt, he’s deemed ready by Yoda to challenge and defeat Vader. While we don’t see him practice, he’s done so enough to consolidate his internal model of The Force and gain more expertise. So while he would never attain Jedi Master levels of control, he was an even match for an elderly Vader. All of his progress can be explained by the same phenomena that allow you to learn how to ride a bike or swing a baseball bat.
Of course, Luke could just be special and made of magical microscopic creatures. We were all thinking it.
Eugenia works as an online product manager for an academic publishing company. Her background is in cognitive science, specifically in a field called psychophysics where she studied human motor learning. She is also a bellydancer. You can follow her thoughts on art, science, and being really busy athttps://personwhodoesathing.wordpress.com/.
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