No. 8:  The Rule of Skill

    We tend to think of ourselves as having "a" memory: our memory for events and knowledge.  If someone asks us a question, we answer in words. That kind of memory is just one of your forms of memory--declarative memory.  It is called declarative because you can talk or 'declare' things about the memories.  However, a very important but different form of memory is your kinesthetic or skill or muscle memory--three terms for the same thing.  You use kinesthetic/skill/muscle memory to learn such things as sports, painting, keyboarding, or anything else that uses your body movements.  You can't explain how your muscles move you to ride a bike, you just do it.  The memory resides in the part of your brain that controls your muscles, and not in the part that you use to recall facts, events, and rules.  So, what is important about muscle memory for your learning?

First, declarative memory is easy to create, but also easily lost.  If you only learn something with declarative memory, you had better use it often, or else you will forget it.  Muscle memory is slower to create, but lasts a very long time. For example, learning to ride a bicycle is hard and takes days or weeks of trying, but once you learn, even if you haven't ridden for 30 years, you'll still remember how.  If you can learn things well with muscle memory in addition to declarative memory, you are very likely to remember it better. (That's part of what  minute sketches with folded lists are designed to do.)
    Within the declarative memory pathway, memories branch to different brain regions for images, written text, sounds or spoken words.  The more different branches of the visual and auditory declarative memory pathway you can use in your studying, the better your chances of remembering something.

Second, declarative memory and muscle memory use completely different brain memory pathways and different brain regions, but they can connect to each other.  You can create muscle memory by repeated sketching or hand movements (or even dance or song) to help you remember a biological fact or principle.  Later, as you begin the hand movements or sketch, your muscle memory will connect with and recall a hard-to-reach or fading declarative memory. (Again, something minute sketches with folded lists are designed for.) The process of sketching can bring back an otherwise lost declarative memory.  Combining declarative memory with muscle memory maximizes your chances for recall.

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Last updated  12/01/2009
College of William and Mary, Department of Biology