The Phenomenon behind Muscle Memory

Nocturne No. 2 in E-flat Major, Op. 9, No. 2 – Chopin

7 years ago, I had to cultivate the habit of practicing this complex piece (back when I was studying music). My instructor emphasized the importance of tempo, emotional performance & motion technique. Now as I listen to this masterpiece, I am able to play a few bars on the piano without having to remember where my fingers are placed or which notes come after the one I previously played. It is embedded in my memory.

In muscle memory, you repetitively practice a movement; changing the way your brain reacts to these movements resulting in quicker, repeated motions.

One study examines the mirror mechanisms in groups with different levels of acquired motor skills & to see whether action observation is in tuned with their own motor repertoire. So individuals who are skilled in a certain action will have a stronger activation in the premotor & parietal cortex when viewing an action they have learned to perform versus those who have never learned.

Calvo-Merino’s article (2004) begins to discuss the underlying process of observation in action performance specifying the brain mechanism behind it. A previous study using non-human animals have found within premotor & parietal cortices there are “mirror” neurons. A mirror neuron “mirrors” the behavior of the other as though the observer were itself acting. Similar to humans, fMRI reveals that human actions observation includes the premotor cortex, parietal areas, & the superior temporal sulcus (STS). Other previous studies have suggested that action observation can influence the final stage of motor control in the motor cortex. Another study also suggest that our mirror system has a specific cue to when it is activated in such that actions from biological hand would be more likely to activate then an artificial hand.

To test the hypothesis in this study they used a factorial fMRI design & recruited expert ballet & capoeira dancers (10 ballet dancers from the Royal Ballet, 9 capoeira dancers, & 10 non expert individuals as a control group). For the task they were all asked to watch both ballet & capoeira movements. The video clips were randomized & the dancers faces were blurred to ensure that they focused on the movements instead of the emotional facial features. The dancers watching the video where they were asked to indicate how “tiring” each movement was. Results show that there was significant activation in premotor cortex, parietal areas, & the superior temporal sulcus when observing movements that were in their motor repertoire. Expert ballet dancers showed greater activation when watching ballet moves then capoeira moves while it was the opposite for capoeira dancers.  The results suggest that when observing action the mirrors areas in the brain respond to stimuli based on the subjects’ motor repertoire. If the subject have the acquire skill to perform the action then there is greater activation. Those with no motor experience in either ballet or capoeira no differences were detected – this would suggest that when an individual observes motor simulation it involves an internal simulation of the movement being observed.

Intention is one of the major components we see in motor simulation. The intention & execution of motor movement have certain networks for Intention that corresponds with motor neurons.


B. Calvo-Merino1 (2004) Action Observation and Acquired Motor. Skills: An fMRI Study with Expert Dancers.  


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