Muscle Memory, Friend or Foe.
Can you tie your shoes? Do you type? Can you type even moderately fast say, 35 words per minute or more? Can you write? Draw or paint? Can you ride a bike? Drive a car? Play a video game? Can eat your dinner with a knife and fork? These are examples of tasks that require muscle memory. Muscle memory is the ability to remember a task after it is repeated several times. Eventually that task becomes “automatic”, meaning that you don’t have to think about the actual physical details of the task.
For example, when was the last time you had to think about tying your shoelaces? I challenge you to try and dissect all the movements necessary to tie your shoes. It’s quite complicated and yet most likely a completely involuntary process for you. Chances are that you were taught the movements at a very young age and you can’t even remember when or how you learned to tie your shoes. But every day you tie your shoes without fail. That’s muscle memory at work.
Muscle memory is kind of miraculous thing. It allows us to perform complicated tasks without much thought. If all is going well the movements seem to be on autopilot. The great songwriter and multi-instrumentalist John Hartford said that if he was playing well he was just two eyeballs floating up above his hands and he might even be thinking about something else. And John Hartford could play fast. This could only happen with muscle memory.
The thing about muscle memory is that it doesn’t care much about your good intentions. It only remembers what you tell it. If you tell it do something poorly over and over then you’ll “remember” it that way. A great example of this is sloppy handwriting. My penmanship is terrible. Even if I try and write nice and smooth I can’t. Muscle memory controls how well and how clean your handwriting is. I paid little or no attention to my handwriting when I was in my early years of school. I had no patience to sit there and trace those lines over and over again getting it perfect every time. Now with the advent of computers I hardly ever write. My muscle memory for handwriting is back to the elementary school level.
Tracing the letter A over and over is how you were trained to write. First upper case A then the lower case a. You probably started out with printing then eventually you were trained to write in cursive. I gave up on cursive long ago. My cursive is illegible at this point. I made a half-hearted attempt to improve my handwriting a few years ago but gave up when I realized how much work I had to do. It’s to bad I didn’t do it right the first time maybe my hand writing wouldn’t like a total doofus’.
Muscle memory might seem like a mysterious thing but in reality its fairly straightforward. Any time we think, or move, or perform any action our nerves fire an electrical impulse and hopefully, if we’re healthy, our body responds to that electrical impulse, like tying our shoes for example. If we perform an action enough times our nerves get wrapped with an insulation called Myelin. It literally grows around the nerve.
Myelin is like taking a single strand of wire and reinforcing it with extra layers. Scientists have actually been able to photograph it and you can see the layers wrapped around the nerves like tree rings. On some nerve fibers scientists have seen the myelin wrapped as many as fifty times. That’s muscle memory!
When you were taught to tie your shoes the nerves that send the signal to your hands get wrapped with Myelin which speeds the firing and improves the accuracy of the electrical impulse. By the time you’re twenty years old you’ve accumulated a lot of myelin around your shoe tying nerves. You can likely do it with your eyes closed. That’s the myelin speeding up the signals through your nervous system. The thing is, if you stop tying your shoes, let say for years, you might have trouble tying your shoes. You would have to relearn the skill just like with my handwriting. I never write by hand anymore so my handwriting has gotten very sloppy. There’s no myelin reinforcing it.
Myelin only grows when you repeatedly send a signal through your nervous system. In other words, it won’t grow unless you practice! By practicing what we’re really doing is reinforcing a movement or skill with this myelin stuff. Its like building up our nervous system muscles for heavy lifting. But as soon as we stop practicing it stops growing just like our muscles would stop growing if we stopped lifting weights.
So what we’ve been calling muscle memory could be called “myelin memory.” It is allowing us to perform the complicated task of playing a musical instrument. And therein is the beautiful and perhaps brutal truth about muscle memory. You have to practice to develop muscle memory and it would behoove you to get it right the first time because myelin will remember all the mistakes you make. Get things right the first time and you won’t have to relearn anything. Get it wrong the first time and you’re stuck with a bad habit unless you start over from scratch and totally relearn (or re-myelinate everything), the right way.