Understanding Automatic Actions: How Our Bodies Move Without Thinking

Understanding Automatic Actions: How Our Bodies Move Without Thinking

Uncovering the Power of Procedural Memory

Have you ever found yourself typing on a keyboard, driving a car, or playing an instrument without consciously thinking about how to do it? This is the power of procedural memory, a type of long-term memory that enables you to perform motor skills without much conscious effort. In this article, we will explore what procedural memory is, how it works, and how it affects your daily life.

Uncovering the Power of Procedural Memory

What is Procedural Memory?

Procedural memory is a type of implicit memory that involves learning and remembering how to perform certain motor skills or actions, such as riding a bike, playing basketball, or writing with a pen. Unlike declarative memory, which involves conscious effort and intention to remember information, procedural memory is acquired through repetition and practice, and it becomes almost automatic over time.

How Procedural Memories Are Formed

Procedural memories form when connections are made between synapses, the gaps at the end of a neuron that allow signals to pass. The more frequently an action is performed, the more often signals are sent through those same synapses. Over time, these synaptic routes become stronger, and the actions themselves become unconscious and automatic.

A number of brain structures are involved in the formation and maintenance of procedural memories. The cerebellum, for example, is associated with coordinating movements and fine motor skills required for many activities such as drawing, painting, playing a musical instrument, writing, and sculpting. The limbic system, another area of the brain, also coordinates many processes involved in memory and learning.

Procedural Memory Examples

You use procedural memory for a variety of actions, from basic activities like walking, talking, and eating, to more complex ones like playing an instrument, driving a car, or typing on a keyboard. Some other examples of things that involve procedural memory include:

  • Cycling
  • Playing basketball
  • Swimming
  • Preparing simple meals
  • Tying shoelaces
  • Brushing teeth
  • Using a computer mouse

Disorders That May Affect Procedural Memory

Certain brain-based disorders or conditions may impact procedural memory, potentially leading to deficits. Parkinson’s disease is one such disorder. People who’ve had a stroke may also notice procedural memory issues. However, some research indicates that procedural memory can be improved for stroke patients.

Not every brain-based condition appears to affect procedural memory. For instance, a 2021 review found that, while some studies have connected Alzheimer’s disease with procedural memory issues, the overall research suggests that this type of memory may actually remain intact when Alzheimer’s dementia exists. A 2019 study involving 36 people with a moderate-to-severe traumatic brain injury (TBI) also found that there wasn’t much difference in their procedural memory when compared to people without a TBI. It may even be possible for mental health disorders to impact procedural memory. For example, one study found that people with major depressive disorder may experience procedural memory impairments, potentially due to slow sleep spindle activity.

Procedural Memory vs. Declarative Memory

Procedural memory is just one memory type. Another type of long-term memory is declarative memory. Declarative memories are things that you intentionally remember and that require conscious effort to recall. Also known as explicit memory, this type of memory involves things such as remembering information for a test, remembering that you have an upcoming dentist appointment, and knowing your home address.

Remembering the physical process of how to do something like drive a car is a procedural memory (implicit memory) while remembering the route you have to take to get somewhere is a declarative memory (explicit memory).

How to Improve Procedural Memory

Procedural memory is one of the types of implicit memory that we use to perform actions automatically without thinking. As we discussed earlier, it is the memory responsible for driving, writing, typing, playing an instrument, and many other everyday activities that we do without giving them a second thought. In this section, we’ll take a closer look at how procedural memory works and how it is formed.

Formation of Procedural Memories

Procedural memories are formed when connections are made between synapses, which are the gaps at the end of a neuron that allows signals to pass. As we repeat an action more frequently, the signals sent through the same synapses become stronger, and the synaptic routes become more robust. Over time, these routes become automatic, and we perform the action without thinking.

Many brain structures are involved in the formation and maintenance of procedural memories. The cerebellum, for instance, is associated with coordinating movements and fine motor skills required for many activities such as drawing, painting, playing a musical instrument, writing, and sculpting. The limbic system, another area of the brain, also coordinates many processes involved in memory and learning.

On the other hand, procedural memory is considered a type of implicit memory. Implicit memories are those that form without effort. When the lyrics to a popular song get stuck in your head, that’s an example of implicit memory at work. You haven’t expended any effort to learn the lyrics and melody of the song. Simply hearing it in the background as you go about your day leads to the formation of implicit memory.

Improving Procedural Memory

If you’re interested in improving your procedural memory, some strategies can help.

  1. Get Adequate Sleep

Research indicates that sleep has positive effects on procedural memory in healthy individuals. Developing sleep-promoting habits and behaviors may help improve this type of memory.

  1. Practice Sequential Actions

Practicing actions that follow the same steps each time can also help you improve procedural memory. An example would be repeatedly playing the same song on a musical instrument.

  1. Work on Your Motor Skills

Strong motor skills appear to have a protective effect against age-related procedural memory decline. To take advantage of this effect, regularly perform actions that require muscle coordination, such as throwing a ball or buttoning a button.

In conclusion, automatic actions, reflexes, involuntary movements, habitual behaviors, and automatic responses are all examples of the type of memory known as procedural memory or motor memory. This type of memory is formed through repetition and practice, and allows us to perform complex motor skills without conscious effort or thought. While declarative memory involves conscious effort to recall information, procedural memory is an unconscious memory that allows us to perform a wide range of motor skills with ease. So, whether you’re typing on a keyboard, driving a car, or playing an instrument, you’re relying on the power of procedural memory to perform these actions effortlessly.

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