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How Does Muscle Memory Work?

by Brenda Mao

We often hear the term “muscle memory” in relation to musicians, athletes, artists, etc. But muscle memory is also used in much simpler actions, such as riding a bike, typing on a keyboard, and even tying your shoes. But what exactly is muscle memory, and how does it work?

Muscle memory is the ability of our muscles to retain a particular movement or action that has been repeated frequently over time. When we perform a particular movement or action repeatedly, our brain creates a neural pathway that sends signals to our muscles. These signals cause the muscles to contract in a particular way, which results in the desired movement. The more the movement is repeated, the stronger the neural pathway becomes, and the easier it is for our muscles to perform the action without thinking. As such, the term “muscle memory” is a bit misleading because it involves the brain more than muscles. 

The process of developing muscle memory is called “procedural memory.” This is a type of long-term memory that is responsible for storing information about how to perform specific tasks or skills. Other memory types include episodic memory (memory of events) or declarative memory (memory of facts), which are each stored in different parts of the brain.

Muscle memory is developed through a process called “myelination.” Myelin is a fatty substance that surrounds and insulates the nerve fibers in our brains. When we repeatedly perform a particular action, the neural pathway that controls that movement becomes coated with myelin. This myelin sheath allows signals to travel faster and more efficiently between the brain and the muscles, eventually leading to a movement becoming almost automatic. The more myelin that is produced, the more muscle memory is developed. In the past, people once believed that muscle memory could last forever. However, the actual duration that muscle memory lasts is uncertain. 

A recent study that was published on February 1, 2023 in the Journal of Neuroscience revealed that muscle memory may be “zipped” and “unzipped” in the brain, similar to files on a computer. The study involved 24 non-musicians that learned simple keyboard melodies over the course of several days, and then were asked to play the sequences from memory. In some trials, the participants would be given a signal to prepare, and in other trials, the participants were asked to perform right away. These participants underwent a brain scan using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which collected pictures of their brains while they played the keyboard. 

fMRI works by tracking the flow of oxygenated blood through the brain. Since active brain cells require more oxygen than inactive ones, fMRI can provide a basic measure of brain activity. The scans collected from this study revealed that the cerebral cortex lit up during the planning stage, as the participants thought about what notes to play and in what order. Then when they actually played the melodies, the patterns representing note order and timing were integrated (“zipped”) into a new pattern of brain activity.

Muscle memory is a truly fascinating and vital part of our body’s ability to perform specific actions. We can train our muscles to become more efficient through repeated actions. However, this can also lead to creating bad habits, so make sure you are using proper technique and consistent practice.

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