Neuroplasticity and the Myth of Muscle Memory: An Introduction.

 

We marvel at the creativity of action. Yet, this abstract representation of the limitlessness of the human body is often boiled down to “muscle memory,” a made up summation of the craft that beautifies the power of the brain and its relevancy. Needless to say, it is not that simple. The behaviorists studied what was observable, while the structuralists studied action through the lens of intention and consciousness. Both were very successful in aiding the revolution of theory. However, neuroplasticity, or the the idea of variability and noise as an informative biological feature of movement remained obsolete. While the popular definition of neuroplasticity still exists around experience and the structural brain changes resulting from the formation of new connections by dendritic spine growth and enhanced internal representations, how does an elite level athlete activate cognitive control processes (adaptation) during complex and constrained motor performance? In other words, is creativity simply a result of muscle memory coming from this plasticity of experience?

Traditionally, the idea of movement variability was outcome dependent. As a result, any deviation from an intended movement pattern was constituted as error. It wasn’t until much later that researchers found such deviations to be potential sources of information in the process of analyzing and monitoring biomechanical qualities. While “muscle memory” confuses adaptation, learning, and performance as simple global parameters which define output, we tend to forget that variability is present in kinetic and kinematic parameters which control basic output. Thereby, creating a system which represents low outcome variability as a resultant of high movement coordination variability. This ability of our system to achieve a task goal through different patterns of coordination defines the compensatory and flexible nature of our ability to actively engage in our perceptual-motor landscape. In fact, it is within this variability that neuroplasticity is honed.

The realm of sport performance and rehabilitation has been very structured in the past. From sets and reps to a linear progression of more complex movement, and to the use of garbage cans, cones, ladders, and whatever else that has no relevancy to skill acquisition. Instead, props like these calibrate and attune the performer to the wrong interventions, many of which won’t transfer. For example, a hurdle jump will not make a volleyball blocker jump higher when there is no ball, transition, visual cue, etc. Creative movement is not just the interaction between different body parts, but an interaction with the environment through perturbation, adaptation, responsiveness, attention, intention, etc. In fact, as Orth et al., (2017) says, its adaptive variability. As animals, we have been resourceful since the onset of our evolution, constantly trying to solve motor problems rather than repeat solutions. We don’t look for creative solutions, we discover them according to the various task relevant and irrelevant changing demands of the organism-environment interaction.

Yes, memory plays a role in the performer’s ability to interpret this interaction. Memory is generally split between long term, short term, and working memory.

Long term memory – A vast resource that represents, or models, regularities in the co-occurrence of elements of information (Barnard and Redgrave, 2006).

Short term memory- The capacity to keep a small amount of information in mind in an active, readily available state for a short period of time (Saussereau et al., 2014).

Working memory – Processing resource of limited capacity, involved in the preservation of information while simultaneously processing the same or other information (Baddeley, 2012)

A muscle clearly can’t store memory. Muscle fibers do not have a separate independent mind of their own. Of course, when accepted as truth by a large number of people without proper investigation, a myth can create cultural change. The idea behind muscle memory is that muscles can function to produce a more receptive motor cortex through its ability to adapt to different training loads and cognitive demands. This happens through our brain’s capacity to store information, strategize, and create effective solutions. It is an interplay of emotion, expectations, autonomy, instruction, motivation, and attention. None of this is originates in the muscle itself, therefore, the muscle itself is never automatized.

So the question proposed in the beginning was how does an elite level athlete activate cognitive control processes (adaptation) during complex and constrained motor performance? In other words, is creativity simply a result of muscle memory coming from this plasticity of experience? My hope is you can formulate that answer yourself with the information above. The motor learning literature is filled with work on practice conditions, stages of learning, contextual interference, motor control, measuring performance, action preparation, feedback, retention, and transfer, all of which play a significant role in adaptive variability. However, one thing I do want to briefly mention is the role of language in all this. Applicable to coaches, is the way we instruct and facilitate learning and practice. Numerous studies have been conducted on the role of attentional focus, autonomy support, and enhanced expectancies which are inherent attributes to cueing. Whether its providing choice (task relevant or irrelevant), directing performers to engage in an external focus, or providing social-comparative feedback, sport performance is not just the training load. It is the cognitive constraint that your language has on a performer’s resultant movement strategy. Our assigned sets and reps meaning absolutely nothing if variability isn’t induced in the how and what, not just the when. Muscle memory is the adaptive variability that fluctuates the perceptual motor landscape. And neuroplasticity is  the longterm retention of this adaptive variability. To sum up, this is just an introduction to many other topics that are relatable, and I think its important to realize that as coaches and practitioners, we aren’t inducing muscle memory. We are reorganizing our ability to consolidate memory from differential practice in order to satisfy a coalition of organismic, task, and environmental constraints.

With Love and Light,

Harjiv Singh

 

References:

Cowan, N. (2008). What are the differences between long-term, short-term, and working memory?. Progress in brain research, 169, 323-338.

Olesen, P. J., Westerberg, H., & Klingberg, T. (2004). Increased prefrontal and parietal activity after training of working memory. Nature neuroscience, 7(1), 75.

Orth, D., van der Kamp, J., Memmert, D., & Savelsbergh, G. J. (2017). Creative motor actions as emerging from movement variability. Frontiers in psychology, 8, 1903.

 

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