What is muscle memory

You’ve probably heard the term “muscle memory” mentioned at least once. But what’s this?
Do muscles have some specific brain that makes them remember? Are they able to recall memories of your last day out? Well, the answer is actually no. Muscle memory is something more specific. It’s a type of procedural memory in which the muscles consolidate a specific motor task through repetition until it’s turned into a “memory”. If you repeat the movement over and over, with time this task turns into a “long-term muscle memory”, which allows you to perform the task without conscious effort. Some examples of this process are typing on a keyboard, riding a bike, playing a musical instrument, etc.

But where is this “memory” located?

No, not in the muscles. The memory is actually in the brain, more accurately, in the Perkinje cells in the cerebellum. There your brain encodes data and whether particular movements are right or wrong. Your brain then focuses a bigger amount of energy on performing the proper action and stores the information in the long-term memory. Once this data is stored there, you’ll need less conscious effort to repeat the given task.

And then, when you move, some sensors (with the scientific name proprioceptors) which are located in the muscles, joints and tendons give feedback to the CNS (central nervous system).

That’s how your body learns to interpret the senses and movements – by mechanoreceptors (in the joints) or skin receptors which feed back information to the brain and the brain relates this information to success. After all, you wouldn’t want your muscle memory to lead to catching a ball with your face, would you?

Can this memory be changed?

Let’s take as an example the swinging of a golf club. You know that it can be done in a hundred different ways. But how many of them are proper! And let’s imagine that your muscle memory has encoded the wrong motion because… well, because you’ve spend countless hours swinging the club the wrong way. But, do not worry, this muscle memory can be changes. Yes, it will take another round of countless hours of practicing the correct
movements – no, not countless, but you cannot do it only with several repetitions – you can encode the proper movement in your long-term muscle memory.

What do tests show?

Some studies have been performed on the topic of muscle memory. A specific study we’d like to mention if the one performed by researchers at the University of Manchester. They asked some test subjects to repeat movements while being in an MRI. The results showed that the brain activity changes when you try to reproduce a task. There was much more activity in the specific brain areas which control the unconscious aspects of proprioception and movements. Thus, we can tell that the brain constantly keeps creating muscle memories with every single movement.

It’s still unclear how much repetitions are necessary for the creation of a muscle memory.
Some say that only 300-500 repetitions may be needed, others state that in order to be an expert, you’ll need a 10 000 hours of repetition.


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