Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Muscle Memory - The Truth Revealed

"I know it's been a while. But it's like riding a bike. It'll all come back to you." And it of course it does! This common observation refers to something people like to call "muscle memory." 

Would you believe me if I told you that most people don't know what muscle memory is? I explained it to three friends of mine the other day. Really bright friends. But they were surprised to learn that muscle memory isn't something going on in the muscles. Muscle memory happens in the brain.

So I'm going to clear it up for you, too - once and for all.

What happens is this. The first time you do something, it's not already programmed in your brain. You don't have the "hard-wired" neural pathways that enable the activity. But your brain makes it happen anyway. It coordinates all the various perceptual, cognitive and physical signals needed to do the activity. This requires concentration. Your brain works overtime to put all this together. That's why even though you can do it, the activity feels awkward at first.

When you repeat the activity over and over, neurotransmitter chemicals stimulate the brain cells related to the activity to grow dendrites, which are filaments on the brain cell, to reach out and connect with the other brain cells involved. With enough repetition, the brain cells actually do connect in a circuitry of brain cells called a "neural pathway." 

This growth and connection of the neural pathway takes lots of repetition and time to establish itself. But once it's connected, the brain is literally "hard-wired" with a simple, efficient circuitry that enables the activity. The brain no longer has to work hard to make it happen, so the activity "feels easy" to you, as if it were second nature. You just do it automatically, without having to think about it. "Practice makes perfect," as it were.

The cool thing is, the neural pathway is now a physical part of your brain, so it won't go away. In other words, you can't forget the skill. Even if you tried. That's why riding a bike comes back to you so naturally, even if you haven't done it for decades. You don't have to relearn it. And that's why people call it muscle memory.

But of course nothing in the muscles contributes to this memory. All the memory capability resides in the brain, which tells the muscles what to do. Just wanted to be clear about that one little detail.

Enjoy your skills! 
Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., , Copyright 2010. Building Personal Strength .


Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Coates,

Your articles on brain function like "muscle memory" have interested me very much. And I wonder if you could scientifically explain why I find my thinking clearer and sharper after doing certain exercise focusing on fingers and toes.

I would very much appreciate your input on this.

This is one of the exercise which has been gradually becoming popular here in Japan. Although it took more than five decades to develop it, most of us have learned it only recently. It is quite different from conventional exercises in several ways, especially using your brain with your eyes open.

For example a lesson goes like this,

1) Stretch both arms in front of you
2) With a thumb inside, make a fist
3) Keep grasping strongly and make sure that a thumb and fingers are equally pressed until finger joints looking white
4) Keep strongly grasping while paying attention to and around finger points
5) While being conscious around finger points, open your hands widely to maximum level
6) Open your hands further until muscles of your thumb and small finger rise

Same goes your toes of bare feet,

1) Grasp with your five toes until wrinkles back of your feet show up
2) Open your toes wide open
3) Repeat 1) and 2) several times
4) Try to move only a small toe
5) Try to move only a big toe
6) Be conscious that this toe will lead to ankle and eventually become muscles of your leg

After doing several exercises everyday for weeks, I found myself ( I'm in my 50s ) improving my memory and walking faster and more lightly.

I came to know the exercise about two years ago. Seeing unbelievably active performance of the 76-year old founder of the exercise, Kikuchi Kazuko, on DVD and books, I decided to take on her methods and have been pleasantly surprised by its benefits.

There are of course many more exercises than the two mentioned above. But all in all, what she emphasizes is to try to connect specific part of your brain to the very part of your body which you are working on. It is very important to concentrate on your action, so avoid watching TV or listening to music at the same time.

Ms.Kikuchi says how many times you repeat doesn't account. What matters most is to listen to the voice of your body and consciously use your brain so that you will discover that your body has a miraculous ability to improve and grow.

I have a feeling that doing Kikuchi Exercise regularly probably helps revitalize the connection between your brain and specific part of your body. Am I right?

Thank you for your attention and looking forward to your feedback.


Denny Coates said...

Three things about this exercise may affect the brain in a positive way.
1. It concentrates attention in the here and now, the present moment. If you aren't paying attention to the world around you, you'll remember very little of your experience.
2. It focuses attention. A wandering mind is not good for memory.
3. Doing the exercise successfully will build confidence in your ability to use your brain deliberately.
I'm delighted that you found something like this that works so well for you.

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Coates,

Thank you so much for your prompt reaction. I really appreciate it.

I'm afraid I could not fully explain the effects of this exercise. Maybe I should translate her books into English someday to precisely demonstrate this one of a kind method.

Thank you again.


Anonymous said...

Dr. Coates,

I am researching a teaching methodology for self defense. My theory involves the fight or flight response and the heightened sensual and muscular effects. I want to tap into that short duration of higher abilities by creating reflexive training modules that have the participant react to various media input, most sudden and shocking some slow to develop but frightening.
Do you have any insights that may help focus my efforts? At this point I have a vague idea in my mind based upon personal experience. I recognize that certain extraordinary actions were accomplished at times of great fear. In a word can we bottle it and train the average person to reflex in a productive manner.


Denny Coates said...

JP, first of all, read How We Decide, by Jonah Lehrer. Lots of insights about how we learn to do things instinctively.

My take is that the brain learns these instinctive patterns unconsciously. There is perception and interaction and the amygdala is engaged. The basic emotional response, whether it's satisfaction or aversion, is remembered. In Lehrer's book, he uses the example of an NFL quarterback, throwing the ball within 3 seconds to a particular receiver because it feels right. He will make a different decision each time, depending on how he feels about the situation.

My work is mostly in conscious learning. Making yourself repeat a pattern over and over again until the cortex rewires itself with new dendritic connections. As in learning how to hit a golf ball out of a sand trap. Or how to do the butterfly stroke for competitive swimming. You want to perform the action the same every time, because it's the most effective way to do it.

I hope this helps. Good luck@!

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your blog post! I've been trying to find an clear explanation for an incredible feat I just experienced. I was a gymnast when I was younger(very long time ago). I stopped working out, gained weight, lost physical muscle mass, and haven't tumbled in over 6 years. Last night I went to a tumbling class and was able to do high level skills again! I was struggling with simple strength exercises but when it came to the back flips, I could do it! Reading your explanation, I really believe it was muscle memory! I can remember/visualize how to do the skills and I truly believe that acheiving the things I did last night was based on mentality! I was worried that this was some fluke and maybe I shouldn't try it again but your words of wisdom including "can't forget the skill. Even if I tried" has inspired me to get back up and perfect my skills. Thank you!

Bethany Learn @fit2bmama said...

Thanks Denny. I have told countless people about muscle memory, but you are right. It all goes back to the brain. Which means that fitness is more mental than people realize. If you CHOOSE to try and try again, your brain knows how to send the signal but your mind (maybe even your heart and spirit) made the choice to get up and try again.