Just before I started to learn the piano in 2018 (a life-long goal), I picked up my flute for the first time in more than 15 years to try to remind myself how to read music.  I found that the ability to play some pieces came back far quicker than I had anticipated.  Knowing how long it’s taken me to get comfortable reading the base stave needed for the left hand of the piano, I’m pretty sure that this wasn’t because I was actually able to read the notes and translate them into instructions to my fingers.  It was a lot to do with muscle memory.  Despite the extremely long time it had been since I had played, my fingers still seemed to remember how to play certain songs.

This article by Oxford University explains the fascinating science behind muscle memory and how our brain responds to learning new skills.

I was a keen swimmer growing up and whilst not particularly consistent, it is a means of exercise I always seem to return to.  When swimming again recently, I found myself talking myself through the techniques I’d learnt whilst younger.  For crawl: “kick from the hips, eyes just under the water line, “spear the fish” with your arms”.  These are things that my teacher taught me when I couldn’t have been more than ten!  Whilst my overall technique and stamina certainly dip, having these instructions in muscle memory and, in this case, memory my brain specifically recalls as well, enables me to get back into the exercise much more quickly and efficiently. 

That connection between the body and the brain has also been apparent to me in a skill I’ve learnt as an adult.   In the first workshop I attended about public speaking, being taught a stance* to adopt to appear calm and confident on stage has become such an important habit for me.  It has enabled me feel ready to speak, even when nervous.  As I walk out onto a stage, getting into that initial stance, my body responds with “OK I’m ready to speak now” and almost automatically adjusts to what is needed to accomplish that task.  Finding a new posture to trigger that same sense of being in the zone to speak in the new online world of digital communication is something I’m working to cultivate. 

How you are taught helps you form powerful and long-lasting memory. Movements can be recalled by your body unconsciously. Powerful instructions may stay in your consciousness. Getting into a certain position can affect how you feel. Conversely if you’re forming bad habits, perhaps by not getting help with a something when you need it, it is likely to be much more difficult to break what may become an ingrained, unproductive technique.  If you’re learning a new skill, choose your trainer or feedback methodology wisely to achieve the most impactful results, which will no doubt stay in your body’s memory for a long time.

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*Legs hip distance apart, feet facing forwards, arms relaxed by your sides.

Photo by Dallas Morgan on Unsplash

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