Muscle memory has been used synonymously with motor learning, which is
a form of procedural memory that involves consolidating a specific
motor task into memory through repetition. When a movement is repeated
over time, a long-term muscle memory is created for that task,
eventually allowing it to be performed without conscious effort. This
process decreases the need for attention and creates maximum
efficiency within the motor and memory systems. Examples of muscle
memory are found in many everyday activities that become automatic and
improve with practice, such as riding a bicycle, typing on a keyboard,
typing in a PIN, playing a musical instrument, poker, martial
arts or even dancing.
2.1 Motor behavior
Muscle memory encoding
Muscle memory consolidation
2.4 Strength training and adaptations
3 Fine motor memory
3.1 Music memory
3.2 Puzzle cube memory
4 Gross motor memory
4.1 Learning in childhood
4.2 Effect of Alzheimer's disease
5.1 Consolidation deficit
Dysgraphia for the alphabet
6 See also
The origins of research for the acquisition of motor skills stem from
philosophers such as Plato,
Aristotle and Galen. After the break from
tradition of the pre-1900s view of introspection, psychologists
emphasized research and more scientific methods in observing
behaviours. Thereafter, numerous studies exploring the role of
motor learning were conducted. Such studies included the research of
handwriting, and various practice methods to maximize motor
The retention of motor skills, now referred to as muscle memory, also
began to be of great interest in the early 1900s. Most motor skills
are thought to be acquired through practice; however, mere observation
of the skill has led to learning as well. Research suggests we do
not start off with a blank slate with regard to motor memory although
we do learn most of our motor memory repertoire during our
lifetime. Movements such as facial expressions, which are thought
to be learned, can actually be observed in children who are blind;
thus there is some evidence for motor memory being genetically
In the early stages of empirical research of motor memory Edward
Thorndike, a leading pioneer in the study of motor memory, was among
the first to acknowledge learning can occur without conscious
awareness. One of the earliest and most notable studies regarding
the retention of motor skills was by Hill, Rejall, and Thorndike, who
showed savings in relearning typing skills after a 25-year period with
no practice. Findings related to the retention of learned motor
skills have been continuously replicated in studies, suggesting that
through subsequent practice, motor learning is stored in the brain as
memory. This is why performing skills such as riding a bike or driving
a car are effortlessly and 'subconsciously' executed, even if someone
had not performed these skills in a long period of time.
When first learning a motor task, movement is often slow, stiff and
easily disrupted without attention. With practice, execution of motor
task becomes smoother, there is a decrease in limb stiffness, and
muscle activity necessary to the task is performed without conscious
Muscle memory encoding
The neuroanatomy of memory is widespread throughout the brain;
however, the pathways important to motor memory are separate from the
medial temporal lobe pathways associated with declarative memory.
As with declarative memory, motor memory is theorized to have two
stages: a short-term memory encoding stage, which is fragile and
susceptible to damage, and a long-term memory consolidation stage,
which is more stable.
The memory encoding stage is often referred to as motor learning, and
requires an increase in brain activity in motor areas as well as an
increase in attention.
Brain areas active during motor learning
include the motor and somatosensory cortices; however, these areas of
activation decrease once the motor skill is learned. The prefrontal
and frontal cortices are also active during this stage due to the need
for increased attention on the task being learned.
The main area involved in motor learning is the cerebellum. Some
models of cerebellar-dependent motor learning, in particular the
Marr-Albus model, propose a single plasticity mechanism involving the
cerebellar long-term depression (LTD) of the parallel fiber synapses
onto Purkinje cells. These modifications in synapse activity would
mediate motor input with motor outputs critical to inducing motor
learning. However, conflicting evidence suggests that a single
plasticity mechanism is not sufficient and a multiple plasticity
mechanism is needed to account for the storage of motor memories over
time. Regardless of the mechanism, studies of cerebellar-dependent
motor tasks show that cerebral cortical plasticity is crucial for
motor learning, even if not necessarily for storage.
The basal ganglia also play an important role in memory and learning,
in particular in reference to stimulus-response associations and the
formation of habits. The basal ganglia-cerebellar connections are
thought to increase with time when learning a motor task.
Muscle memory consolidation
Muscle memory consolidation involves the continuous evolution of
neural processes after practicing a task has stopped. The exact
mechanism of motor memory consolidation within the brain is
controversial. However, most theories assume that there is a general
redistribution of information across the brain from encoding to
Hebb's rule states that "synaptic connectivity changes
as a function of repetitive firing." In this case, that would mean
that the high amount of stimulation coming from practicing a movement
would cause the repetition of firing in certain motor networks,
presumably leading to an increase in the efficiency of exciting these
motor networks over time.
Though the exact location of muscle memory storage is not known,
studies have suggested that it is the inter-regional connections that
play the most important role in advancing motor memory encoding to
consolidation, rather than decreases in overall regional activity.
These studies have shown a weakened connection from the cerebellum to
the primary motor area with practice, it is presumed, because of a
decreased need for error correction from the cerebellum. However, the
connection between the basal ganglia and the primary motor area is
strengthened, suggesting the basal ganglia play an important role in
the motor memory consolidation process.
Strength training and adaptations
Muscle memory (strength training)
When participating in any sport, new motor skills and movement
combinations are frequently being used and repeated. All sports
require some degree of strength, endurance training, and skilled
reaching in order to be successful in the required tasks. Muscle
memory related to strength training involves elements of both motor
learning, described below, and long-lasting changes in the muscle
Evidence has shown that increases in strength occur well before muscle
hypertrophy, and decreases in strength due to detraining or ceasing to
repeat the exercise over an extended period of time precede muscle
atrophy. To be specific, strength training enhances motor neuron
excitability and induces synaptogenesis, both of which would help in
enhancing communication between the nervous system and the muscles
However, neuromuscular efficacy is not altered within a two-week time
period following cessation of the muscle usage; instead, it is merely
the neuron's ability to excite the muscle that declines in correlation
with the muscle's decrease in strength. This confirms that muscle
strength is first influenced by the inner neural circuitry, rather
than by external physiological changes in the muscle size.
Previously untrained muscles acquire newly formed nuclei by fusion of
satellite cells preceding the hypertrophy. Subsequent detraining leads
to atrophy but no loss of myo-nuclei. The elevated number of nuclei in
muscle fibers that had experienced a hypertrophic episode would
provide a mechanism for muscle memory, explaining the long-lasting
effects of training and the ease with which previously trained
individuals are more easily retrained.
On subsequent detraining, the fibers maintain an elevated number of
nuclei that might provide resistance to atrophy; on retraining, a gain
in size can be obtained by a moderate increase in the protein
synthesis rate of each of these many nuclei, skipping the step of
adding newly formed nuclei. This shortcut may contribute to the
relative ease of retraining compared with the first training of
individuals with no previous training history.
Reorganization of motor maps within the cortex are not altered in
either strength or endurance training. However, within the motor
cortex, endurance induces angiogenesis within as little as three weeks
to increase blood flow to the involved regions. In addition,
neurotropic factors within the motor cortex are upregulated in
response to endurance training to promote neural survival.
Skilled motor tasks have been divided into two distinct phases: a
fast-learning phase, in which an optimal plan for performance is
established, and a slow-learning phase, in which longer-term
structural modifications are made on specific motor modules. Even
a small amount of training may be enough to induce neural processes
that continue to evolve even after the training has stopped, which
provides a potential basis for consolidation of the task. In addition,
studying mice while they are learning a new complex reaching task, has
found that "motor learning leads to rapid formation of dendritic
spines (spinogenesis) in the motor cortex contralateral to the
reaching forelimb". However, motor cortex reorganization itself
does not occur at a uniform rate across training periods. It has been
suggested that the synaptogenesis and motor map reorganization merely
represent the consolidation, and not the acquisition itself, of a
specific motor task. Furthermore, the degree of plasticity in
various locations (namely motor cortex versus spinal cord) is
dependent on the behavioural demands and nature of the task (i.e.,
skilled reaching versus strength training).
Whether strength or endurance related, it is plausible that the
majority of motor movements would require a skilled moving task of
some form, whether it be maintaining proper form when paddling a
canoe, or bench pressing a heavier weight. Endurance training assists
the formation of these new neural representations within the motor
cortex by up regulating neurotropic factors that could enhance the
survival of the newer neural maps formed due to the skilled movement
training. Strength training results are seen in the spinal cord
well before any physiological muscular adaptation is established
through muscle hypertrophy or atrophy. The results of endurance
and strength training, and skilled reaching, therefore, combine to
help each other maximize performance output.
More recently, research has suggested that epigenetics may play a
distinct role in orchestrating a muscle memory phenomenon  Indeed,
previously untrained human participants experienced a chronic period
of resistance exercise training (7 weeks) that evoked significant
increases in skeletal muscle mass of the vastus lateralis muscle, in
the quadriceps muscle group. Following a similar period of physical
in-activity (7 weeks), where strength and muscle mass returned to
baseline, participants performed a secondary period of resistance
exercise. Importantly, these participants adapted in an enhanced
manner, whereby the amount of skeletal muscle mass gained was greater
in the second period of muscle growth then the first, suggesting a
muscle memory concept. The researchers went on to examine the human
epigenome in order to understand how DNA methylation may aid in
creating this effect. During the first period of resistance exercise,
the authors identify significant adaptations in the human methylome,
whereby over 9,000 CpG sites were reported as being significantly
hypomethylated, with these adaptations being sustained during the
subsequent period of physical in-activity. However, upon secondary
exposure to resistance exercise, a greater frequency of hypomethylated
CpG sites was observed, where over 18,000 sites reported as being
significantly hypomethylated. The authors went on to identify how
these changes altered the expression of relevant transcripts, and
subsequently correlated these changes with adaptations in skeletal
muscle mass. Collectively, the authors conclude that skeletal muscle
mass and muscle memory phenomenon is, at least in part, modulated due
to changes in DNA methylation. Further work is now needed to
confirm and explore these findings.
Fine motor memory
Fine motor skills
Fine motor skills are often discussed in terms of transitive
movements, which are those done when using tools (which could be as
simple as a tooth brush or pencil). Transitive movements have
representations that become programmed to the premotor cortex,
creating motor programs that result in the activation of the motor
cortex and therefore the motor movements. In a study testing the
motor memory of patterned finger movements (a fine motor skill) it was
found that retention of certain skills is susceptible to disruption if
another task interferes with one's motor memory. However, such
susceptibility can be reduced with time. For example, if a finger
pattern is learned and another finger pattern is learned six hours
later, the first pattern will still be remembered. But attempting to
learn two such patterns one immediately after the other could cause
the first one to be forgotten. Furthermore, the heavy use of
computers by recent generations has had both positive and negative
effects. One of the main positive effects is an enhancement of
children's fine motor skills. Repetitive behaviors, such as typing
on a computer from a young age, can enhance such abilities. Therefore,
children who learn to use computer keyboards at an early age could
benefit from the early muscle memories.
Playing the piano requires complex actions
Fine motor skills
Fine motor skills are very important in playing musical instruments.
It was found that muscle memory is relied on when playing the
clarinet, specifically to help create special effects through certain
tongue movements when blowing air into the instrument.
Certain human behaviours, especially actions like the finger movements
in musical performances, are very complex and require many
interconnected neural networks where information can be transmitted
across multiple brain regions. It has been found that there are
often functional differences in the brains of professional musicians,
when compared to other individuals. This is thought to reflect the
musician's innate ability, which may be fostered by an early exposure
to musical training. An example of this is bimanual synchronized
finger movements, which play an essential role in piano playing. It is
suggested that bimanual coordination can come only from years of
bimanual training, where such actions become adaptations of the motor
areas. When comparing professional musicians to a control group in
complex bimanual movements, professionals are found to use an
extensive motor network much less than those non-professionals.
This is because professionals rely on a motor system that has
increased efficiency, and, therefore, those less trained have a
network that is more strongly activated. It is implied that the
untrained pianists have to invest more neuronal activity to have the
same level of performance that is achieved by professionals. This,
yet again, is said to be a consequence of many years of motor training
and experience that helps form a fine motor memory skill of musical
It is often reported that, when a pianist hears a well-trained piece
of music, synonymous fingering can be involuntarily triggered.
This implies that there is a coupling between the perception of music
and the motor activity of those musically trained individuals.
Therefore, one's muscle memory in the context of music can easily be
triggered when one hears certain familiar pieces. Overall, long-term
musical fine motor training allows for complex actions to be performed
at a lower level of movement control, monitoring, selection,
attention, and timing. This leaves room for musicians to focus
attention synchronously elsewhere, such as on the artistic aspect of
the performance, without having to consciously control one's fine
Puzzle cube memory
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Erik Akkersdijk is solving a 3×3×3
Rubik's Cube in 10.50s.
Speed cubers often will use muscle memory in order to learn large
numbers of algorithms quickly. It is quickly found that memorization
purely of letters corresponding to moves on the cube is extremely
difficult. The average beginner will try to do something like this;
however, an advanced cuber can learn much more efficiently with muscle
memory. A simple repetition of algorithms will create a long-term
knowledge of it. This plays a role in major speedcubing methods such
as Fridrich for the 3×3×3
Rubik's Cube and EG for the 2×2×2 Pocket
Gross motor memory
Gross motor skills are concerned with the movement of large muscles,
or major body movements, such as those involved in walking or kicking,
and are associated with normal development. The extent to which
one exhibits gross motor skills depends largely on their muscle tone
and the strength. In a study looking at people with Down Syndrome,
it was found that the pre-existing deficits, with regard to
verbal-motor performance, limits the individual's transfer of gross
motor skills following visual and verbal instruction to verbal
instruction only. The fact that the individuals could still
exhibit two of the three original motor skills may have been a result
of positive transfer in which previous exposure allows the individual
to remember the motion, under the visual and verbal trial, and then
later perform it under the verbal trial.
Learning in childhood
The way in which a child learns a gross motor skill can affect how
long it takes to consolidate it and be able to reproduce the movement.
In a study with preschoolers, looking at the role of self-instruction
on acquiring complex gross motor chains using ballet positions, it was
found that the motor skills were better learned and remembered with
the self-instruction procedure over the no-self-instruction
procedure. This suggests that the use of self-instruction will
increase the speed with which a preschooler will learn and remember a
gross motor skill. It was also found that, once the preschoolers
learned and mastered the motor chain movements, they ceased the use of
self-instruction. This suggests that the memory for the movements
became strong enough that there was no longer a need for
self-instruction and the movements could be reproduced without it.
Effect of Alzheimer's disease
It has been suggested that consistent practice of a gross motor skill
can help a patient with
Alzheimer's disease learn and remember that
skill. It was thought that the damage to the hippocampus may result in
the need for a specific type of learning requirement. A study was
created to test this assumption in which the patients were trained to
throw a bean bag at a target. It was found that the Alzheimer's
patients performed better on the task when learning occurred under
constant training as opposed to variable. Also, it was found that
gross motor memory in Alzheimer's patients was the same as that of
healthy adults when learning occurs under constant practice. This
suggests that damage to the hippocampal system does not impair an
Alzheimer's patient from retaining new gross motor skills, implying
that motor memory for gross motor skills is stored elsewhere in the
It is difficult to display cases of "pure" motor memory impairment
because the memory system is so widespread throughout the brain that
damage is not often isolated to one specific type of memory. Likewise,
diseases commonly associated with motor deficits, such as Huntington's
and Parkinson's disease, have a wide variety of symptoms and
associated brain damage that make it impossible to pinpoint whether or
not motor memory is in fact impaired. Case studies have provided some
examples of how motor memory has been implemented in patients with
As Edward S. Casey notes in Remembering, Second Edition: A
Phenomenological Study, declarative memory, a process that involves an
initial fragile learning period. "The activity of the past, in short,
resides in its habitual enactment in the present."
A recent issue in motor memory is whether or not it consolidates in a
manner similar to declarative memory, a process that involves an
initial fragile learning period that eventually becomes stable and
less susceptible to damage over time. An example of stable motor
memory consolidation in a patient with brain damage is the case of
Clive Wearing. Clive has severe anterograde and retrograde amnesia
owing to damage in his temporal lobes, frontal lobes, and hippocampi,
which prevents him from storing any new memories and making him aware
of only the present moment. However, Clive still retains access to his
procedural memories, to be specific, the motor memories involved in
playing the piano. This could be because motor memory is demonstrated
through savings over several trials of learning, whereas declarative
memory is demonstrated through recall of a single item. This
suggests that lesions in certain brain areas normally associated with
declarative memory would not affect motor memory for a well-learned
Dysgraphia for the alphabet
Case study: 54-year-old woman with known history of epilepsy
This patient was diagnosed with a pure form of dysgraphia of letters,
meaning he had no other speech or reading impairments. His
impairment was specific to letters in the alphabet. He was able to
copy letters from the alphabet, but he was not able to write these
letters. He had previously been rated average on the Wechsler
Adult Intelligence Scale's vocabulary subtest for writing ability
comparative to his age before his diagnosis. His writing
impairment consisted of difficulty remembering motor movements
associated with the letters he was supposed to write. He was able
to copy the letters, and also form images that were similar to the
letters. This suggests that dysgraphia for letters is a deficit
related to motor memory. Somehow there is a specific portion of
the brain related to writing letters, which is dissociated from
copying and drawing letter-like items.
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"The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two"
Tip of the tongue
List of memory biases
Misattribution of memory
Art of memory
Memory and aging
Indirect tests of memory
Lost in the mall technique
Methods used to study memory
The Seven Sins of Memory
Effects of exercise on memory
False memory syndrome
Memory and social interactions
Politics of memory
Atkinson–Shiffrin memory model
Effects of alcohol
Emotion and memory
Memory and trauma
Sleep and memory
Robert A. Bjork
Stephen J. Ceci
Judith Lewis Herman
Marcia K. Johnson
Paul R. McHugh
George Armitage Miller
Henry L. Roediger III
Arthur P. Shimamura
Mind and brain
Anatomical terms of muscle
List of muscles of the human bod