Activities such as writing code and solving math problems are often perceived as purely intellectual pursuits. But this ignores the fact that they involve the mental equivalent of muscle memory.
The idea of muscle memory is a powerful concept in human learning. It has helped millions of people to understand the importance of practice in learning motor tasks. However, it’s also misleading because it excludes skills that don’t involve using muscles.
I believe that a similar principle operates in learning intellectual skills. Lack of recognition of this fact has made it harder for people to appreciate the importance of practice in acquiring those skills as well.
The phenomenon of muscle memory is widely acknowledged. When you repeatedly practice balancing on a bicycle, swinging a tennis racquet, or typing without looking at the keyboard, adaptations in your brain, nervous system, and muscles eventually allow you to carry out the task without having to consciously pay attention to it.
The brain and nervous system are central to learning intellectual skills, and these parts of the body also respond to practice. Whether you’re writing code, solving math problems, or playing chess, practice makes you better at it. It leads your brain to form mental chunks that allow you to reason at a higher level. For example, a novice programmer has to think carefully about every parenthesis or colon, but with enough practice, coding common subroutines can take little conscious effort. Practice frees up your attention to focus on higher-level architectural issues.
Of course, there are biological differences between learning motor skills and learning intellectual skills. For example, the former involves parts of the brain that specialize in movement. And the physical world presents somewhat different challenges each time you perform an action (for example, your bicycle hits different bumps, and an opposing tennis player returns each of your serves differently). Thus practicing motor skills automatically leads you to try out your actions in different situations, which trains your brain to adapt to different problems.
But I think there are more similarities than people generally appreciate. While watching videos of people playing tennis can help your game, you can’t learn to play tennis solely by watching videos. Neither can you learn to code solely by watching videos of coding. You have to write code, see it sometimes work and sometimes not, and use that feedback to keep improving. Like muscle memory, this kind of learning requires training the brain and nervous system through repetition, focused attention, making decisions, and taking breaks between practice sessions to consolidate learning. And, like muscle memory, it benefits from variation: When practicing an intellectual task, we need to challenge ourselves to work through a variety of situations rather than, say, repeatedly solving the same coding problem.
All of this leads me to think that we need an equivalent term for muscle memory in the intellectual domain. As knowledge work has come to play a larger economic role relative to physical labor, the ability to learn intellectual tasks has become much more important than it was when psychologists formed the idea of muscle memory around 150 years ago. This new term would help people understand that practice is as crucial to developing intellectual skills as muscular ones.
How about intellect memory? It’s not an elegant phrase, but it acknowledges this under-appreciated reality of learning.
What intellectual task do you develop intellect memory for, and can you find time in your schedule to do the necessary practice? After all, there’s no better way to learn.