The muscle memory theory has been around a long time, yet new research suggests that we don't yet know all there is to know.
While octopuses are blessed with thinking centers in their limbs, human appendages can't exactly remember things. But once we learn how to do something physical, it gets easier the more we do it and eventually feels automatic.
Shooting a basketball, lifting a barbell or riding a bike are all things that are generally believed to involve muscle memory, especially when perfected. However, neuroscientists and biologists have found that two different things happen when and where the term is concerned, but only one actually happens inside the muscles.
You will have noticed that a certain action would feel dreadfully awkward on the first try, but you could leave it alone for months to find it much easier when you pick it up again. Biologists have conducted multiple experiments to figure why that is, and they've settled on the theory that muscle cells don't go away even if muscles shrink.
When one puts stress on a muscle and it reaches hypertrophy, it grows new cells in order to get stronger. For a while, it was believed that the opposite happens when nothing is done to that muscle, as in the cells die off; yet it has emerged that such may not be the case.
“Muscle is a complex tissue with many different cell types, and one of the problems in the field is how to specifically identify the myonuclei for study,” Lawrence Schwartz, a biologist at University of Massachusetts Amherst, explains in a review paper.
Despite the newer information, there's no conclusion as yet. But results point to cells in muscles sticking around for a very long time, so much so that the muscle one built in his/her younger years - especially during adolescence - could help much later on in life.
“Although certain skills, like cycling or perfecting a tennis serve, might require the strengthening of certain muscles, the processes that are important for learning and memory of new skills occur mainly in the brain, not in the muscles,” Oxford University neuroscientist Ainslie Johnstone, claims in an article.
So basically, the actual memory is stored in the brain while the muscle cells stick around to police activity based on prior experience.
Hopefully, there will be enough research, results, and evidence to point us in the right direction somewhere down the line. For now, we can all just stick to the "perfect practice makes perfect" instruction.