Just yesterday I was in the car with my 10 year old son. He asked me the oddest question about my 2017 model suv. “Mom,” he said, “what was the hardest part about learning to drive this car when you got it instead of your old car.” The question honestly took me by surprise. Here I was driving down the highway and suddenly had to think about something that I have not thought about in a long time. It took me a minute to answer him, as I wanted to be thoughtful and honest. “Blind spots,” I said. “I needed to get used to where the blind spots are.” I answered him with the thing that I hoped would resonate and that he would remember in 6 years when he can have his own driver’s license. For that moment, in that one conversation, I felt like I had an opportunity to impart some wisdom and hopefully influence him to become a safe driver someday.
But then it struck me- all drivers, every time they change brands or cars, go through the same issue and more. Not only are their blind spots new and different but so too are many of the vehicle features. And since most of how we drive is by pure muscle memory, the shift can be painful. It can also be either dangerous or make one a safer driver. We hope that by reading this, you will be safer.
Muscle Memory – What Is It
Oxford University refers to muscle memory as “an amazing phenomenon.”
Even the simplest everyday actions involve a complex sequence of tensing and relaxing many different muscles. For most of these actions we have had repeated practice over our lifetime, meaning that these actions can be performed faster, more smoothly and more accurately. Over time, with continual practice, actions as complicated as riding a bike, knitting, or even playing a tune on a musical instrument, can be performed almost automatically and without thought.
Really, they point out that it is skill memory, coming from different regions of the brain that develop the ability to do this. Popular Science elaborates on this point, reminding us that muscle memory and how we think of it is not likely reflective of the way it works.
Most people are referring to this phenomenon when they talk about “muscle memory,” but when biologists and neuroscientists study it they mean at least two slightly different things. Your understanding is probably some combination of two basic ideas, though only one actually happens inside your muscles… we don’t yet fully understand how muscle fibers retain an impression of how big they used to be, but evidence suggests our myonuclei are doing at least some of the remembering. That means muscle you build during your younger years—especially adolescence when you’re primed to grow—could help you later on in life. Schwartz and other have noted that this early exercise “might functionally serve to allow individuals to ‘bank’ myonuclei that could be drawn upon later in life…
It feels to us as if that memory is stored in our muscles—as if they’re remembering how to perform an action without our really being aware of it. But the reality is that the activity is happening in our brains… The parts of your brain responsible for that movement, mainly the motor cortex, develop stronger connections between neurons that serve as the representation for the motion, and it’s these connections that make the memory better and easier to access. People who play stringed instruments, for example, have stored muscle memories related to their left hands, which are pressing on strings in particular patterns to play certain notes. Accordingly, studies show that their motor cortices have unusually large representative areas for their left hands.
Muscle Memory and Driving
The concept of our brains and our muscles working together to help us master tasks applies to driving. The actions that we take behind the wheel of a car to help us maneuver down the road, or park, navigate through traffic in different weather conditions and varying light are all related to muscle memory. There are places we learn to reach with our hands, places we look to, as well as how we use our feet that most long-term drivers begin to do without being fully present and aware.
As Drivers Ed points out, “Our ability to turn a thought-intensive, novel activity to an easy, routine one is “muscle memory”–a process of first learning something consciously, but using experience to learn to do that task subconsciously. After repeating a complex task enough times, our minds can start to execute the procedure without the help of conscious instructions… checking my blind spot before changing lanes, which way to turn the wheel when backing up, deciding whether to go through a yellow light, etc. Only after time did those things start to become second nature.”
Safe Driving Comes with Practice and Familiarity With Our Car
This is why we encourage, or in some cases enforce, teens to practice for 6 months or more before they are ever set loose on the road without an instructor in the car. In fact, in a growing number of states, a licensed adult must be in the passenger seat for a period of time after. This practice translates into better, safer drivers. But as any of us who have suddenly found ourselves in a new car with different settings, buttons and controls in places relative to a seat that is different – as well as different torque and braking and safety features – driving can suddenly become frustrating, scary and overwhelming.
This is likely a reason that most of us become incredibly brand loyal with cars and trucks – the settings are familiar to us, making it easier to get on the road without a learning curve. While you may think that shaking things up a bit is going to help keep you sharp, it can actually be as distracting as being a new teen behind the wheel. You may know the rules of the road, but you don’t yet know how to drive this car.