About Muscle Memory

May 18th, 2018

What does it mean to develop a skill, and go from “novice” to “expert”?

In the world of heavy equipment, that partly means memorizing how to use levers, joysticks, steering wheels, pedals, etc. in a coordinated way to make things happen.

But how does this memorizing take place?

At first, you need to concentrate in order to make your fingers, hands, arms and feet move in just the right way, based on what you see and hear. What you’re learning is precision, i.e. how to make the various functions perform the necessary task (dig a trench, move a load, grapple a log, drill a hole, etc.) carefully.

(Scientists have discovered that there are a large number of internal brain structures which work together with the input and output brain structures to form fleeting images in the mind. Using these images, we learn to interpret input signals, process them, and formulate output responses in a deliberate, conscious, way.)

After a while, the “seeing-thinking-doing” gradually becomes “seeing-doing” because your muscles seem to “know” and “remember” just what to do. What you’re learning now is speed, i.e. how to perform the task carefully and quickly. That’s muscle memory.

Scientists call this “kinesthetic memory” or “neuro-muscular facilitation” and they speak of “sensory-motor” learning, since you are combining sensing input, i.e. what you see and hear, with motor output, i.e. what you do with your body.

Of course, during the “drill-and-practice”, your muscles aren’t really memorizing anything (since all memories are stored in your brain). Instead, what you see with your eyes and hear with your ears is interpreted by your brain in the form of nerve signals sent to your muscles to make your body move.

Now by making the same movements in response to the same cues over and over again, the associated nerve-muscle connections gradually become more effective, i.e. the transmission of the signals becomes more effective, and this is how the “thinking” in the “seeing-thinking-doing” is gradually replaced by “seeing-doing”, i.e. by muscle memory. Psychologists call this process “consolidation”.

And this is exactly what we observe when people spend time at the controls of a simulator too. At first, their body language tells you at a glance that they are concentrating carefully, working hard to watch and learn. But come back sometime later and the same people are now relaxed, sitting back, and making the same precise gestures but now much faster!

In the world of heavy equipment, muscle memory is especially important because it’s the combination of care and speed that make people experts. And muscle memory also let’s you turn your attention to the “big picture” e.g. to plan the next step in the work to be done, by taking over a large part of your “mental load”.

But there’s a “catch”: to learn the new skills and acquire muscle memory, you must be practicing properly. This means lots of feedback, right from the start, since novices don’t know enough yet about doing things right to be able to notice, and correct, their own mistakes! (If they could, they’d be experts instead of novices.) Worse, if you don’t practice properly, you’ll learn to do things “wrong” and down the road, you’ll need to “un-memorize” those bad habits.

That’s why we say perfect practice makes perfect.

And that’s why it’s important that your training simulator feature the right kind of instructional design, with the right kind simulate tasks, and the right kind of performance measurement.

But remember: developing skills is variable. Some people learn faster than others and go on to achieve higher levels of performance. (The blog entries in the “Operator Aptitude” Category will help you learn more.)


Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia – Motor learning

Date of last revision: 27 February 2018