Everyone, from athletes to musicians, talks about ‘muscle memory’ – practising a skill until the motion becomes second nature. This, argues David Eagleman, is a misnomer. It is not our muscles, but our mind that has gone into auto pilot.
To demonstrate this, Eagleman goes head-to-head with 10-year-old Austin Naber, a champion cup stacker. Naber’s skill and speed of stacking is staggering, and the difference between his motions and Eagleman’s is immediately apparent.
“He smoked me,” Eagleman admits. “But the bigger point is that when I’m doing it, it’s my first time cup stacking. It’s all conscious for me, I’m burning a lot of energy trying to figure out the rules; how the cups balance.”
Both stackers had their brain activity monitored via an EEG during the task and the difference was stark. Eagleman’s brain was firing on all cylinders, but Naber’s barely flinched – despite the pace at which he was moving. This is because Naber’s brain had automised the behaviour; by practising for hours every day, Naber had made the process unconscious, making it far less mentally taxing.
Practice may not make perfect, but it definitely means progress.
See the cup stacking in action: