We're all familiar with the term "muscle memory." Once you've learned to do something—serve a tennis ball, play a difficult piece of piano music, or draw a lifelike human hand—your body seems to intuitively "know" how to reproduce that action. But researchers at Johns Hopkins university have recently discovered that our ability to perform a physical athletic or creative task isn't entirely about what the body has learned to do right. Instead, we owe our success to the hundred times we've tried to master a skill and failed.
"When you're just starting to learn something new, the errors that you experience are helping you learn faster," says David Herzfeld, a PhD student in Biomedical Engineering involved with the Hopkins study.
To demonstrate this, Herzfeld's team devised a simple video game in which subjects used a joystick (represented on screen by a blue cursor) to hit a red target. The exercise was similar to throwing darts. "When the dart lands below the target, the next time you throw just a bit higher," Herzfeld says. "But next time, maybe the dart goes above the bullseye. What do those two errors together tell you? Your error sensitivity was too large. You overcorrected."
After a series of failed attempts, players corrected just enough to master the game. Then, the scientists secretly reprogrammed the joystick to always send the cursor 30 degrees to the left. After a few huge errors, subjects again adjusted to the new paradigm, learning to aim right. But as soon as they'd gotten the hang of it, the scientists switched the cursor back to its original "straight-ahead" position. Subjects were again forced to correct their shots, this time by aiming left. The scientists discovered that most people increased the speed at which they were able to readjust.
"We found that if you put people in a situation where the joystick was rotated in a way they'd never seen before, they will learn that faster than a person off the street," says Herzfeld. They were experiencing what Herzfeld calls "savings." It's the idea that you might be a bit rusty after a week-long break from your music practice or your sketch book, but in a short amount of time, you'll not only meet your previous learning threshold; you'll surpass it. "Every time you get a little faster," Herzfeld says, but not simply because your body "remembers" the correct motions. "You're not only recalling the actions that you performed"—the muscle memory—"but you now have a memory of your errors," Herzfeld says. "Such that you can generalize the corrections from those actions to completely new things."
Which means anyone struggling to master a sport, skill, or creative task should keep this in mind: Don't beat yourself up for repeatedly fouling on your serve or drawing a human hand that more accurately resembles a starfish. The next time you put pen to paper, your brain will remember the ugly tentacle-like fingers that you drew and, hopefully, help you move just a little closer to the hand of a human.