HealthTalk: Muscle Memory
Muscle memory is something that probably everyone takes for granted, but rightly so — it is an unconscious effort to remember how to perform tasks that have been repeated multiple times.
The classic example of muscle memory is remembering how to ride a bike, but simpler, everyday tasks also involve muscle memory: typing, writing, throwing a ball, or brushing teeth.
A newborn cannot do much, and if we did not possess the ability to learn specific motor tasks through muscle memory, we would constantly have to relearn muscle movements. Consequently, muscle memory is an evolutionary survival mechanism that allows us to move effectively and use tools.
Although scientists know that the cerebellum is involved in motor learning, the mechanism of muscle memory is not exactly known. According to an article in Nature, one theory breaks down muscle memory into two stages: an encoding stage and a memory consolidation stage.
The encoding stage is when the muscle movement is being learned and the memory is “unstable,” or easily changed. When learning a new muscle movement, many areas of the brain become active because additional attention is required to focus on, and “proofread”, the task. When we try to learn how to write with our non-dominant hand, it seems to require a frustrating amount of attention as compared to writing with our dominant hand; this is the encoding stage of muscle memory.
The consolidation stage allows the movement to be stored in long-term memory and stabilizes the movement in memory. It is believed that repetitive firing of neurons in the brain can change how they are connected as well as increase their efficiency. As we become more familiar with the movement, connections that the brain made for proofreading the movement are diminished, so it seemingly becomes more natural.
By studying certain disorders, researchers can try to learn more about the basis of muscle memory. In a study published by The Journals of Gerontology, it was shown that patients with Alzheimer’s disease can learn a task — in this case throwing a bean bag at a target — when learning was performed regularly. Because researchers know which areas of the brain are affected by Alzheimer’s disease, they can narrow down the ways in which motor skills are memorized.
Another case study, famous to all cognitive psychology students, is that of Clive Wearing, who was unable to make any new memories or recall old ones due to brain damage. Although his memory was severely hampered, he was still able to walk and even play the piano. Researchers suggest that memories are easy to destroy because they are stored as one instance. Conversely, muscle movement and other procedural skills are repeated multiple times, and therefore scattered throughout the brain, making them harder to destroy.
The term muscle memory is sometimes attributed to a phenomenon that bodybuilders attest to. They find that it is easier to build muscle after a long break than when they first started to train their muscles. While it is not known whether or not this is a real phenomenon, studies are being performed on muscle cells and their components and seem to show that it actually exists.
Muscle memory is a way that our bodies learn to interact with the environment effectively. The next time you find yourself at a computer, typing every word without a second thought, or at a desk writing effortlessly, think about muscle memory.