Discover How Your Brain Builds Muscle Memory

Discover How Your Brain Builds Muscle Memory

Grade Level

6 - 8


15 min - 1 hr


Life Science

Este recurso está disponible en español. This resource is available in Spanish.

A young person sweats as they jump rope while a happy robot dances to music.
Credit: Joy Ho

Have you ever jumped rope? Challenge yourself to try it. Find a jump rope or a piece of clothesline seven to eight feet long. (You can even make your own jump rope out of plastic bags or old t-shirts.)

First, check your space to make sure you can jump rope comfortably and safely. Grab a jump rope handle in each hand. Start with the rope behind you, against the back of your heels. Next, swing the rope overhead and down to sweep it under your feet. Bend your knees a bit and hop over the jump rope as it goes under your feet. Aim to jump about an inch off the ground. It helps to stay on the balls of your feet like you’re trying to stand on your toes.

If you don’t have a jump rope, try a hand-clapping game, like Miss Mary Mack, or try another jumping game, like switch or scissor jumps. Jump and land with your right foot in front of your body and the left one behind your body. Then, hop and switch feet on the next jump, reversing their positions.

How many jumps can you get in a row? How many claps can you get without making a mistake?

A girl in an orange shirt and sneakers jumps rope in a white living room.
Have you ever tried jumping rope? Credit: Shutterstock

Your Brain Controls Your Movement

If you’ve never used a jump rope before, it can be difficult to get started! How easy was it for you to jump rope at first? Were you frustrated at all when you couldn’t get it? It is OK if you were. Sometimes, trying new things can be hard!

Did you get better at it the longer you jumped? With practice, our brains can learn the correct sequence to move our bodies.

Muscle memory is a form of memory where your brain remembers movements—sometimes called motor tasks—and is able to perform them in a sequence without you having to think about them.

When you first learn a new motor task, you will need to dedicate your full attention to it to ensure you get the details right. This muscle memory starts slowly and can be easily disrupted if your full attention isn’t given to the task. That’s why your coach or music teacher might ask you to “focus” when practicing. Over time, with lots of practice, the motor task becomes easier and can be performed without thinking about it.

Your Brain Has Many Parts

You may not realize it, but your amazing brain is constantly working to help you move.

Movement involves the cerebral cortex or the outer “shell” of your brain. Within this outer shell of the brain, in the part called the frontal lobe, there is a region called the motor cortex. It plays an important role in the execution of voluntary movements, which are movements you can control, like kicking your leg or turning your head.

The cerebellum, also known as the “mini-brain,” is another area involved in muscle movement. It helps your muscles and body coordinate movements and helps us stay balanced. A collection of brain cells nestled deep in the brain, called the basal ganglia, serves as a gatekeeper. It decides which movements to allow and which to block. Together, the cerebellum and basal ganglia are responsible for the regulation of voluntary movement. They work together to make sure that your movements are precise and well-timed.

Thanks to your motor cortex, basal ganglia, and cerebellum, your brain works behind-the-scenes to make sure you can walk, run, and even stand. Often, your brain coordinates your movements without you realizing it.

A simple illustrated brain with different areas labeled and marked with different colors. From the top, going clockwise: parietal lobe, frontal lobe, temporal lobe, brainstem, cerebellum, and occipital lobe.
Note the cerebellum on the illustration of the brain above. What does that area of the brain control? Credit: Shutterstock

Another cool thing about the brain is that aerobic exercise, such as walking, bicycle riding, jogging, swimming, and, yes, jumping rope, has positive effects on the brain and can improve your mood!

Putting Motor Memory To Use

Pause and think about something you have had to practice over and over other than jumping rope. Was it shooting hoops or soccer goals? Practicing a section of music on the piano before a recital? Hours rehearsing a dance move you saw on YouTube?

There is science behind being able to see something happening and then recreate it. But what exactly is that science? This science is called neuroplasticity. Your brain has about eighty billion neurons, and when you learn something, they “fire” or become active. The brain is growing and reshaping as you learn new things. The neurons send messages to other parts of your brain with the new information, forming connections between different regions of the brain. As you continue to practice, the connections become stronger in the brain, and you will soon have the dance moves mastered! This is how you can see dances on the internet and copy them. You can always learn something new, but neurons are most active when you are a teenager. Have patience with the older people in your life when you are trying to teach them the same dance moves. It’s possible for people to keep learning as they get older; it just takes them a little longer!

Time for a quick dance challenge! Can you recreate the movements of this robot and human dancing together? If you’re seated, just try to replicate the arm movements.

A robot and a human perform a simple dance in sync, moving their feet, arms, and heads.
Stand up and try this dance move! How quickly are you able to master it? Credit: Canva

Good job! That may have been an easy dance move, but even with dance moves like this, it is important to practice dance movements to build muscle memory. Your brain makes it possible to learn new dance moves by creating new connections between nerve cells to help support your new skill. Now, can you share that move with someone else?

Brain Builder

Let’s put your new understanding of the brain to work! For the puzzle below, you need to use the visual cues provided to figure out the steps to a dance, also known as the “choreography”. Choreography organizes individual dance movements into an order or pattern. First, you will need to figure out the order of the steps to this dance. Then, you need to move through that pattern on a grid. If you do this activity correctly, a secret code will be revealed. Enter it into the Science Friday Enigma Machine to find out if you’re right and get your digital badge.

Did you love this challenge? This activity and puzzle are part of the Hack Your Brain neuroscience escape room. Join the newsletter to get the full five-day experience.

Download the puzzle!

Credit: Lucas LePrince (designer), Fai Kosciolek (illustrator)

Check Your Knowledge

See how much you remember from your reading! These ten questions will test your recall. (Note: Both versions are free, but Kahoot! requires a log in.)

Kahoot! Game          Google Quiz

Want To Learn More?

Here are some great resources for you to check out!

NGSS Standards

Special thanks to the Dana Foundation for funding Hack Your Brain.

Dana Foundation Logo

Lesson by Svea Anderson
Neuroscience Consultation by Daisy Reyes
Game Design by Lucas Leprince
Illustration by Joy Ho
Puzzle Illustration by Fai Kosciolek
Developmental Editing by Sandy Roberts and Sheeva Azma
Copyediting by Ariel Zych
Digital Production by Ariel Zych

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Meet the Writer

About Svea Anderson

Svea Anderson is a twenty-year veteran educator who never hesitates to step out of her comfort zone and try something new. She enjoys a challenge and never passes up an opportunity to learn something new.

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