The other day, I was out for my usual night of line dancing and was talking to a friend, I’ll call Joe, who brought a friend, who said they did not know how to dance but wanted to learn. I queried Joe as to why he had not taught his friend how and was quite surprised when Joe said that he couldn’t teach them, despite dancing himself.
Joe blamed it on poor muscle memory and the lack of. So what exactly is muscle memory and why do we need it?
Muscle memory involves task memories that are stored in the brain and lead to mastery over those tasks. The more you do, the more proficient you become over time; often, these proficiencies become subconscious and automatic. You won’t think much about doing them in the future. It’s like dancing – I just do the steps, not having to think about them.
There is both a positive and negative side to muscle memory; while it can lead to good habits, it can also develop the opposite as the brain can’t distinguish between what is good and what is not. So if you do a task that is performed poorly there is a greater likelihood that you will continue do so. It can lead to continuing on with mistakes and frustration.
The good news is that you can correct this, although it will be much harder to undo the bad behavior. Gaining more muscle is equivalent to lifting weights- you start slow, with lighter weights, working your way up to heavier ones. When you start with small, slow steps on tasks, it will allow you to feel more comfortable with them; then, you can make more increments as you move forward.
I like the principle of Kaizen, which means small steps lead to big changes. Starting small prevents the amygdala from activating and stopping you dead in your tracks. Small steps help the brain to feel more comfortable with the small steps and will begin to adopt them as customary; the more you do, the better it feels and the bonus is that you now develop new, positive habits for a lifetime.
So the next time you want to learn something new, such as learning a new work task, playing a musical instrument or, my favorite, learning to dance, keep exercising the correct way to do them so they ‘stick.’ It’s like learning to ride a bike early on and later in life feeling that you can’t ride anymore; but, as you keep getting on the bike, the memory will return. It’s as anything done consistently – the brain muscles will strengthen and a new habit is formed.
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