What Role Does Muscle Memory Play in Learning to Drive?

New driver with P plate on bumper tossing L plate out of the window into bin

Driving can be a deceptively complex skill. Sure, the actions of steering, using pedals and changing gears aren’t too tricky on the surface. It’s worth remembering, though, that they aren’t natural instincts—we need to teach our bodies to perform them. Despite this, once we’ve had plenty of practice, they become second nature. Muscle memory plays a key role in this process. In this article, we’ll examine what exactly muscle memory is, how it works, and why it’s so crucial in the development of driving skills.

What is muscle memory?

Cartoon brain lifting weights

When talking about memory, we usually think about remembering specific facts—like a friend’s birthday—or events, such as something that happened to you as a child. These kinds of memories rely on what is known as your brain’s declarative system. Conscious thought is necessary to access memories you store here, and this system also comes into play when making active decisions based on prior knowledge.

Alongside your declarative system, however, your brain is also capable of another type of memory, too: procedural memory. The kind of tasks you complete in everyday life rely on your procedural memory, including things as simple as getting dressed and tying your laces. This system is also behind certain skills you teach your body, such as how to play a guitar or even how to read words. Without procedural memory, you’d need to relearn how to do these things every single time.

The persistence of procedural memory is remarkable. We all know the cliché about never forgetting how to ride a bike, for example—and procedural memory is what’s behind it. So, where does muscle memory come into it? Well, muscle memory is simply the specific type of procedural memory that has to do with your motor skills. These don’t always have to involve much physical exertion. For example, it’s quite likely you can type your PIN into a card machine without really thinking about it. That’s muscle memory at work!

Nonetheless, muscle memory comes into its own when we have to perform complex, physical tasks frequently. There are few better examples of this than the act of driving.

Muscle memory and learning to drive

young driver holding the steering wheel

If you already have your driving licence, cast your mind to the first time you got behind the wheel. Maybe you were a bit nervous; maybe you felt confident—especially if you were going from riding a motorbike to driving a car. No matter what, at some point, you’ll have experienced a similar scenario. There you were, trying to press down on the accelerator just the right amount, keep on your side of the road (but not too close to that parked Ford Fiesta!), watch out for any pedestrians (or cyclists—where did he come from!?), making that right-hand turn, remembering mirror-signal-manoeuvre, stopping, moving off again, giving way, shifting down a gear, then back up a gear, when you suddenly came to one realisation: driving is a lot of work.

At the time, you probably thought about watching your parents driving when you were younger. “How on earth did they make it look so simple?”, you’d sigh to yourself. The idea of ever being able to do all of it that well would have been laughable. And then things started to change. Slowly but surely, you’d make those gear changes a little more smoothly. Your steering became that bit more precise; your judgement of speed and position more accurate. Driving went from being something you had to think about doing to something you just, well… did. Nowadays, getting into your car and setting off is something that’s pretty much automatic. (If you’re not quite at that point yet, don’t worry: you’ll get there!)

You didn’t realise it at the time, but while learning to drive, your muscle memory was storing new skills. It’s the reason why now, when you suddenly come across an adorable family of hedgehogs crossing the road, you don’t have to think about how to perform an emergency stop; you just do it. From putting on your handbrake at a red light to knowing how far to move over when changing lanes, your muscle memory has you covered.

How long does muscle memory last?

Photo © Dafne Cholet (cc-by-sa/2.0)

It stands to reason that a driver who gets behind the wheel every single day will maintain their skill level. But what about those who take a break from driving? Will they need to start learning again from scratch?

Well, let’s start with the bad news: you’re likely to be pretty rusty. If you haven’t driven for years, you might find that you’ve gotten out of the hang of basic tasks, such as clutch control or observation. What’s more, it’s possible that you’ll be feeling pretty nervy, increasing the chances of making mistakes. That’s why organisations such as Direct Line recommend that drivers coming back from a break take refresher lessons with a driving instructor to ensure they’re ready to take to the road confidently.

The good news, though, is that you’re unlikely to have to start from square one. That’s because your muscle memory lasts a remarkably long time. Going a shorter period without practice—a few months, for example—may have little, if any, impact on your ability. Even those who haven’t taken to the road in years, however, are likely to retain some of the basics thanks to their muscle memory. This gives them a head start when taking driving up again, and means that they may need only complete a few short journeys before they’re back in the swing of things.

Is driving all about muscle memory?

A Nexus One satnav mounted on the front windscreen of a car
Photo © James Cridland (cc-by/2.0)

It’s clear that muscle memory is vitally important while driving. Without it, the complex combination of processes that go into controlling the car and keeping it safely moving along the road would be nigh-on impossible to perform. However, it’s worth remembering that muscle memory deals with unconscious actions—and not every part of driving is unconscious.

Say, for example, you’re on your way to work, and notice that a road you usually take is closed. At this point, the declarative system we mentioned earlier kicks in. The same is the case when you have to act in an emergency situation, like pulling over when you hear an ambulance. In such a scenario, you may need to consciously decide on a safe place to pull over, while your muscle memory takes care of the actions of observing, turning and braking.

With this in mind, it’s worth remembering that muscle memory isn’t the be all and end all. Too many drivers reach a point where they’ve got the skills down and have their commute ingrained in their memory, and think it’s acceptable to switch off (or switch on their mobile phone) while driving. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth. Relying solely on your muscle memory and failing to pay attention to the road can put you and other road users in serious danger. In short, drivers are at their best when their muscle memory and conscious thought work in tandem.

By Andy Boardman

Andy has been part of the PassMeFast Blog team from the very beginning. He'll provide you with plenty of useful motoring advice, helping you to get the most out of every trip. When he's not writing here, you're most likely to find Andy on the way to his next destination.

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