Is muscle memory real?

Have you ever heard to the experiment where you can make your arm levitate? To do this you stand in a doorway with your arms by your side. Then lean one side of your body in the doorway and push your hand hard into the doorframe for about thirty seconds. After the time has elapsed, and you step away your arm that was pushing in the frame will start to rise. Go ahead try it. It almost seams that your muscles have memory. In many sports, your coaches tell you to keep practicing the right technique to create muscle memory and you will do it correctly from then on, but is this really true? Is there such thing as muscle memory?

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There was an experiment conducted at Johns Hopkins University and they concluded that people learn motor commands faster when they are repeated over again due to two separate memories that are created. We create memories about errors that occur and memories about the corrections we make. They gave an example about pulling a door that needs to be pushed to open. Your brain learning from the error and can make a correction the second time around. This kind of experience creates this idea of “muscle memory.” In their experiment, they put volunteers in front of a joystick under a screen. They were not allowed to see the joystick but there was a blue dot on the screen that represented it. A target was introduced with a red dot and the participants had to move the joystick to the red dot. To manipulate the experience, the research team constructed an error with the joystick and programmed it in a way to move slightly off. Therefore, the participants had to fix the way they controlled the joystick and after some time, results showed that the participants got better at this motion. This study was a key part in figuring out how motor skills are learned and this can ultimately be applied to sports and muscle memory, but there needs to be more studies conducted.

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Muscle memory is a term that is yet to be accepted or proven for accuracy. Muscle memory is commonly described as learning and repeating a motor skill to be able to carry the skill out more smoothly and accurately overtime. Activities that apply this idea can include sports, music, or even everyday activities. There is a common misconception that reveals that muscle memory comes from the muscles, but in reality it comes from the brain. In an article published by Oxford University, they explain that processes that result in these new skills occur mainly in the brain. The changes and revisions that are learned by the brain through the experience is learned by the brain and then transferred to the muscles. So it is not exactly your muscles remembering the movement, it is really your brain telling you what to do. There are so many regions of the brain that are associated with skill memory and they include areas in the motor cortex, the basal ganglia, and the cerebellum. The Oxford published article explains that when learning a new skill there are changes that occur in the brain that allow us to ultimately learn this new process. Studies showed that there were changes in either gray or white matter depending on the task at hand. There are also changes in the primary motor cortex, the region of the brain that is ultimately responsible for causing the initial action. Also, as you become better at skill activation in your brain when doing the skill is more focused. The activation shows the difference between novice and more professional people at the particular task. The increased repetition of these skills is what makes these changes in the brain to allow you improve and remember what you did to get better.

I thought this article and experiment was really interesting. I have always wondered about muscle memory and how I can do things while I am playing volleyball without really thinking about what I have to do to do it. It is honestly incredible. I think back to when I was 14, first learning how to play and how difficult it was to remember everything when I was trying to learn a new skill. It was so frustrating, but after I practiced and practiced, one day it just clicked. Fast-forward to now, everything is second nature. It is truly amazing that our brain is so advanced in a way that it can accomplish such an amazing thing. It is just like learning to ride a bike. We can go years without riding it, but you can jump back on and do it almost without effort. If it wasn’t for our amazing brain this would not be possible. I think that these two articles did a great job with explaining how the idea of muscle memory is due to the changes in the brain, not the muscles itself.

2 thoughts on “Is muscle memory real?

  1. jpeiris

    This article brought back the memory of when I first started learning MMA and currently. My uncle taught me MMA and when I first started, I had to repeat my roundhouses and side-kicks, for example, so many times. First slowly and then gradually faster to make sure the technique was correct. Now, even though I haven’t trained with my uncle in a while, I can still accurately do those kicks and other moves I learned. I never really thought to look into if muscle memory was real, which is why I found this article so interesting to read because it finally answered the question I didn’t think to ask. After reading it, I can definitely see how our ‘muscle memory’ is actually just memory that is stores on how to do a skill or task learned ages ago. It also made me wonder if there are any articles that link (1) motivation to learn and (2) cognitive resources available to learn to remembering the task at the time of learning and after a period of time has passed.

  2. kmarston

    I know Dr. Rettinger has talked about the science behind repetition and motor movement in sports many times before, but I always seem to forget that it related to memory, specifically automacity. As a rower, all my movements are like second-nature to me and I can do them swiftly and easily. Rowing requires the same exact movements- arms out, body over, legs up, legs back, body back, arms back- every time. There are slight differences between being on the erg and in the boat with an oar, but the general movements are consistent. I remember I was like you when I was a novice and everything seemed so difficult to master, especially feathering (when a rower twists the oar, so the blade is horizontal to the water rather than vertical). One day about a month after I first started rowing, the skill just ‘clicked,’ and I’ve been successfully doing it ever since. The problem arises for me, when I have an issue with my technique, and I need to make adjustments. This forces me to think about what I am doing wrong, and I no longer am in my automacity mode. As I try to fix a specific part of my rowing, this interruption causes other movements to become sluggish until I can recondition myself to include a technique adjustment into my usual rowing movements. Additionally, Dr. Rettinger has pointed out before that the difference between a great athlete and a mediocre one is the ability to not only successfully do the sport, but to also be able to describe how to do the sport. Your craftmanship lies not just in your muscle memory, but also in your understanding of what you’re doing. I appreciate that you addressed this subject, as it’s always interesting to tie in sport topics into the field cognitive psychology!

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