Jugglers in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History (Credit Ellena Grillo).

The amazing phenomenon of muscle memory

The changes in the brain that allow you to learn new skills

Oxford University
Dec 14, 2017 · 9 min read
Questions submitted by members of the public as part of The Big Brain Competition.

What is muscle memory?

Even the simplest everyday actions involve a complex sequence of tensing and relaxing many different muscles. For most of these actions we have had repeated practice over our lifetime, meaning that these actions can be performed faster, more smoothly and more accurately. Over time, with continual practice, actions as complicated as riding a bike, knitting, or even playing a tune on a musical instrument, can be performed almost automatically and without thought.

How does brain structure change when we make a skill memory?

Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), researchers can study the many different types of changes that allow us to learn and remember a motor skill. One of these changes involves increasing the connections between the different areas of the brain that are required for a particular skill. In one study, performed in Oxford, healthy adults had MRI scans before and after six weeks of juggling training. These scans could detect white matter, the long fibres that connect different parts of the brain together. The researchers found that after the juggling training there was an increase in the white matter connections between regions of the brain responsible for vision and regions responsible for making movements[3]. The increased connections between visual and movement areas results in faster and easier sharing of information, perhaps allowing for greater hand-eye coordination.

What about changes in brain function?

As well as measuring changes in brain structure, MRI scanners can also be used to look at brain function when performing different tasks. MRI can tell us about how brain activation changes as we learn new motor skills. Studies have shown that at the very beginning of learning a new movement there is a large amount of activity across the brain, but particularly in an area known as the pre-motor cortex, which lies just in front of the primary motor cortex[8], and is normally associated with movement planning. High levels of activity are also seen in the basal ganglia which is an area normally active during movement initiation [9,10]. The high levels of activity in these areas are probably related to the fact that, in order to learn a new skill, each action has to be planned and thought through. After repeated practice of the action, as it becomes an effortless almost automatic skill, the activity in the pre-motor cortex and basal ganglia decreases[11,12].

Written by

Ainslie Johnstone, DPhil Student in the Wellcome Centre for Integrative Neuroimaging.

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Oxford University

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Oxford University

Oxford is one of the oldest universities in the world. We aim to lead the world in research and education. Contact: digicomms@admin.ox.ac.uk

Oxford University

Written by

Oxford is one of the oldest universities in the world. We aim to lead the world in research and education. Contact: digicomms@admin.ox.ac.uk

Oxford University

Oxford is one of the oldest universities in the world. We aim to lead the world in research and education. Contact: digicomms@admin.ox.ac.uk