muscle/mental memory - academic question

Since this Unicycling usenet group is a watering hole for many
intelligent people, and also since there are many older physically
active people here, I thought this slightly off-topic and fascinating
issue may be of interest…

It seems that once you learn a physical (motor?) skill which may have
taken weeks or months to learn, you can do it again after many years
with little retraining. Bicycling and Unicycling are example skills.
Apparently, the necessary muscles have been “re-configured” and
strengthened at the correct locations during the learning phase. Quite
likely, the nervous system also plays a role in remembering the skill.

Suppose a person learns a lot of different skills when young. As an
example, a outdoorsy/sporty person can learn skiing, rollerblading,
skiing, surfing, bicycling, unicycling, swimming, and so on. Sometimes
a single muscle can be pulled by a skill, while another skill pushes
the muscle. How is it possible for the muscles to be configured to
“remember” all these skills? Or is it that if you learn new skills,
older skills are forgotten? Or is it that if you have learnt a skill,
such as Unicycling, very well, and if you learn other skills, you will
not be as good at the skill as you were before?

<Quite likely, the nervous system also plays a role in remembering the skill.>

We always talk about training muscles but it is actually your brain that you are training. When learning any physical skill you are really reprogramming your motor neuron centre to cope with the new skill. As you progress and practice the neurons for the correct skill are used more and so become larger and more receptive. If you practice correctly your mind automatically matches your senses of balance and muscle position against previous experience and comes out with the answer without you apparently having to think.

This process is also the reason that when training goes badly, you should stop and take a break. If you push hard when things aren’t working what you are really doing is reinforcing the neurons which result in failure. Stopping for a while allows the brain to return to a normal state and hopefully when you pick up a unicycle again the electrical signals will flow down the correct path instead.

When practising something very hard we often break down the action into seperate subactions and learn each in turn. Think back to “Karate Kid” and the scene for “Wax on, Wax off”. Martial Artists train by using Katas. These Katas are their way of preprogramming their brain with the correct moves and reactions by practicing them as single elements. (Wax on,Wax off is the technique I’m using to train my 4 year old nephew how to juggle - try it, it’s the same move just turn your palms face up and add three balls)

By practicing a single element in isolation, the neurons for those subactions can be built more quickly. After enough subactions are practiced you can then start to practice them in groups building up the links between the subactions until the final skill is complete.

Once built, the neurons remain, fading slowly but never really disappearing. When you return to a skill, the neurons are still there, it only takes a little practice to get them firing to full strength again.

Hope this helps.

Yes, motor learning is centrally mediated (happens in that big muscle between
our ears), but I don’t think people really understand motor learning and
retention at the neuronal level yet.

However, there is a lot of fine research on topics including: learning without
sensory feedback, feedback delay, learning of motor skills without actual
movement, motor learning as concept matching, routinization of motor skills,
etc.

These topics are all studied by psychologists who study “social cognitive
theory”. The keystone reference for info on this topic would be Albert Bandura
at Stanford University.

A gross summary of their views: the development of performance skills requires
a conception-matching mechanism for transforming knowledge into skilled action.
Physical enactment serves as the translating vehicle. The information provided
by enactive experience is used to make corrective adjustments in spatial and
temporal features of action until a close match is eventually achieved between
internal conception and performance.

This view breaks learning into a few components that people then research-i.e.,
what is the knowledge, how does the translating happen, what happens when you
disrupt the process, etc.

Personally I love your question about retention. There is some great research
out there. I will try to find a bit of it.

David Maxfield
Bainbridge Island, WA
I had to become a psychologist–both my parents were mathematicians.

> taken weeks or months to learn, you can do it again after many years
> with little retraining. Bicycling and Unicycling are example skills.
> Apparently, the necessary muscles have been “re-configured” and
> strengthened at the correct locations during the learning phase. Quite
> likely, the nervous system also plays a role in remembering the skill.

I think most of this lives in the brain, followed by the muscles. Put
nervous system in between if it’s a factor, but I don’t know if it counts. I
think it’s just wiring. You learn skills in your head. You can still do them
years later, but the muscles may not be there and you’ll get sore.

> Sometimes
> a single muscle can be pulled by a skill, while another skill pushes
> the muscle. How is it possible for the muscles to be configured to
> “remember” all these skills?

The muscles are tools. A hammer pounds in nails and pulls them out. No
amount of one activity will reduce its ability to do the other.

My belief is that learning physical skills is a process of training a set of
reflexes, and “programming” your brain to run them. Once you get comfortable
doing a skill you can push it down lower and lower in your consciousness, to
the point where you can often do difficult skills without even having to
think about it, or barely so. As you learn new sets of reflexes, the old
ones may get “rusty” but they’re still there.

I’ve met several different unicyclists who hadn’t ridden in 10 years or
more. All of them were riding within a few minutes. Some instantly, and
others after a little practice. As for me, I can’t think of a skill I’ve
gone so long without trying, but I find that after two years I can still ski
about as good as last time, and I can pick up a set of clubs and start
passing relatively easily.

Stay on top,
John Foss, the Uni-Cyclone
jfoss@unicycling.com
www.unicycling.com

“You’re not supposed to wash your Roach armor” - Nathan Hoover, on safety
equipment cleaning methods

On Fri, 8 Feb 2002 09:33:39 -0800, John Foss <john_foss@asinet.com>
wrote:

>The muscles are tools. A hammer pounds in nails and pulls them out. No
>amount of one activity will reduce its ability to do the other.
You’re putting it very simply but I don’t buy it equally simple. I can
easily, almost without thinking, retain a 6 digit number in short-term
memory for up to a minute or so, if you once read it quickly to me.
But if you read another 6-digit number and require me to retain it,
the first one is gone.
Also, I find that if I cognitively learn new things that are somehow
related to things I have learned long before, that those old memories
are awakened and revived. Conversely, I consider it possible that if I
learn new things, that some UNrelated memories are weakened. Somewhat
as if you delete files on your hard disk to make free space to store
new ones.

Admittedly this is all in the cognitive domain and may not be
analogous when applied to motor skills. But I don’t exclude it.

Klaas Bil

“To trigger/fool/saturate/overload Echelon, the following has been picked automagically from a database:”
“RSOC, NAIAG, NCSA”

> You’re putting it very simply but I don’t buy it equally simple. I can

Yes, my intent was to make a very simple analogy, and I am by no means an
expert in these matters, just an experienced physical skills teacher.

> easily, almost without thinking, retain a 6 digit number in short-term
> memory for up to a minute or so, if you once read it quickly to me.
> But if you read another 6-digit number and require me to retain it,
> the first one is gone.

I think it’s a different subject. This is “motor memory,” which has more
sensory input to back it up. I can’t remember my old phone numbers either,
but I don’t have any muscle use associated with that information (dialing
doesn’t count)…

JF

> You’re putting it very simply but I don’t buy it equally simple. I can

Yes, my intent was to make a very simple analogy, and I am by no means an
expert in these matters, just an experienced physical skills teacher.

> easily, almost without thinking, retain a 6 digit number in short-term
> memory for up to a minute or so, if you once read it quickly to me.
> But if you read another 6-digit number and require me to retain it,
> the first one is gone.

I think it’s a different subject. This is “motor memory,” which has more
sensory input to back it up. I can’t remember my old phone numbers either,
but I don’t have any muscle use associated with that information (dialing
doesn’t count)…

JF

Yes, I think interference can be a problem with motor skills as well as with
simpler memory tests. However, complex motor skills such as unicycling include
so many and such a wide variety of physical cues that interference might be
somewhat minimized. It’s kind of exciting how little research on these
topics–especially long-term retention–has been done.

In the learning process they’re mostly studying “routinization”. Below are some
of the components of routinization:

  1. Shift in focus from little action steps to bigger, merged sets of action
    steps. Eventually the entire sequence is routinized. Then attention can focus
    elsewhere as you perform the routine.
  2. Reorganization–sometimes as the skill becomes well defined, you
    re-conceptualize it in a whole new way. This is fuzzy stuff–like the dreaded
    "paradigm shif"t.
  3. Shift in attention from the action stepsthemselves to the context that
    calls for the steps. Instead of focusing on the next steps in the routine, you
    can attend to the audience–or to the cliff that is dead ahead.
  4. Shift in focus from action steps to impacts. You can use the results of
    your overall performance to fine tune the elements within it. For example, you
    can adjust your glide as you move from asphalt to cobblestone without
    considering all of the sub-elements involved in gliding.

The website below has some cool stuff on this topic. It focuses on learning a
second language–not exactly unicycling, but involving some interference. It is
good at laying out many issues.
http://people.ucsc.edu/~mclaugh/APT.htm

David Maxfield
Bainbridge Island, WA