name for learned physical responses that become automatic?

SmarterEveryDay is one of my favorite YouTube channels; Destin Sandlin, the creator, is a charismatic communicator who finds interesting subject matter and does a great job of enthusiastically explaining complicated material.

This thread concerns a particular video he made several years ago, The Backwards Brain Bicycle. In this video, he related his experience learning to ride a bicycle that had been modified so that useful steering inputs by the rider are opposite to what one would use on a conventional bicycle. For clarity:

-on a conventional bicycle, if you start falling to the left, you turn the handlebars to the left to steer the tires back underneath yourself.

-on the BBB, if you start falling to the left, you turn the handlebars to the right to steer the tires back underneath yourself.

As Destin demonstrates, the mere cognitive knowledge of the correct steering inputs is not enough to successfully pilot this bike (or any other for that matter). He had a lifetime of experience piloting a conventional bicycle, and the suite of correct steering inputs for a conventional bicycle (which were incorrect on the BBB) had become automatic; no conscious cognition was required for his brain to deliver the correct/stabilizing steering input at any given moment. He had to hammer that system of automated responses out of his brain, and replace them with a new system of automated responses that were suitable for piloting the BBB. And he was ultimately able to do so with such success that for a brief time, he was not able to ride a conventional bicycle, until his brain remembered its old suite of automatic responses.

So my question is this:
Is there a name for what happens when such learned responses become automatic like that?

Muscle memory? Even though it’s not really the muscles.

Damn, I think you nailed it in one:


I think George Stratton’s experiments with inverting goggles are relevant. The same kind of effect occurs with these goggles. At first people are disoriented and clumsy. But after a few days they adjust to the goggles and are able to function normally. When the goggles are removed, they are again disoriented and clumsy until they readjust to normal vision. This seems like a very similar effect, but it doesn’t seem related to muscle memory.’s_lab_and_the_inverted-glasses_experiments

Although ‘muscle memory’ may involve changes in the muscles themselves, there seems also to be a major role for cerebellar memory which may be more relevant to the OP’s examples.

The neuroscience community generally calls this motor learning, and one of the major players in this type of learning is the cerebellum. This is also the case in inverting google experiments, so in this sense they are related.

I’ve heard ‘motor reflexes’, e.g. driving a car.

Not sure how this relates but I think it does. I used to work on production machinery. Whenever I approached a new machine to work on it appeared to be moving so fast that I couldn’t tell much about what was going on. Experience taught me that if I watched this machine long enough it would appear to slow down where I would be able to visually pick out any unusual nuances. It would usually take several days before I felt I could see everything I needed to see depending on how much time I spent watching it and how fast it was going. I have always marveled at musicians who seemed to have taken this phenomena to the next level. Conditioned response would be my best description.

Motor learning, or more generally a subset of neuroplasticity.

It’s not conditioning as no reward/punishment or cue association occurs.

We used to watch good players playing arcade games. Their obviously wasn’t enough time for them to think about what they were doing: the inputs went in their eyes and came out their fingers without involving higher mental processes at all.

But aren’t all sports like that? You can think “I need to do more XXX” but really, when you are engaged, it’s all done by the cerebellum.

Ah, yes, the joys of Password Reset Day, a holiday observed several times per year at most U.S. corporations when I.T. security protocol demands you change your password.

Or as I prefer to call it, “Try Not To Accidentally Swear At A Customer” Day, because after typing in the same letter/number combo dozens of times a day, my fingers often speed-enter the old password even as my brain is going, “New password, gotta use the new one!” complete auto-override and now I gotta hastily apologize to this nice old lady who thinks I’m mad at her.

I use the term “muscle memory” because I first encountered the phenomenon in ballet class … but I think “motor learning” is more accurate, since the brain isn’t explicitly removed from the process name.

These examples all make sense, except poker. How does muscle memory help with that?

I’ve worked a couple of warehouse-type jobs. Learning how to drive a forklift is confusing, until you get the hang of it. Some aspects are exactly like driving a car, but other aspects are precisely backwards.

At one point in my Navy career I had to memorize six cypher lock combinations that changed once a month. In this case the locks were a box attached to the wall with a shield around it so a bystander could not see what your fingers were doing and five rocker switches, with the labels 0-1-2-3-4 at the top and 5-6-7-8-9 on the bottom. The combination was four digits, none repeated.

Two things made the memorization easier. Three combos were changed on the first and three on the fifteenth so it wasn’t all at once, and it was the physical act of pushing the switches that was automatic, not the numbers themselves. This was to the point where if someone asked, “Hey, what’s the new combo for space?” my answer would be, “Um…” (miming the presses) “One three seven two.”

In martial arts we would practice stances, movements, and blocks over and over again, with the goal of not needing to practice them anymore because they become instinctual. In a real combat or competition you don’t have time to think about what you’re going to do, things happen too fast.

We called that “muscle memory”. Or less often, “trained reflexes.”

Are you the dealer? Then it helps with keeping track of what the players are doing, while at the same time shuffling and dealing.

Are you a player? Again, muscle memory allows you to take the cards without having to stare at them. It’s also a part of avoiding tells, although for this first you need to first figure out what your tells are: think of “keeping a poker face” as a specialized form of acting.

Pavlov called these ‘conditioned reflex’

I think this is what was shown (in a schlocky way) in the original Karate Kid movie. Mr. Miyagi had Daniel-san performing certain repetitive motions over and over again - except it started out as waxing Miyagi’s car, painting his fence, and so on, using very specific postures and movements. And then one day Miyagi demonstrated to Daniel how those movements had become semi-automatic to him.

I’m not certain that’s the right word for what we’re talking about (but I’m not certain it isn’t, either). AIUI, classical conditioning involves pairing a biological response (e.g. a dog’s salivation) that is innately elicited by some ordinary stimulus (presentation of food) and connecting it with some other ordinary stimulus (the ringing of a bell). When conditioning is complete, the dog will still salivate when presented with food, but it will also salivate when it hears a ringing bell. IOW, classical conditioning is about eliciting one response from two different stimuli, whereas the issue in my OP is about having one stimulus (bicycle leans left) and teaching your brain and body to squelch the response you learned as a child and instead implement a new response.

Perhaps I’m wrong about that?

Just an anecdotal experience to show just how ingrained this can be:

By my desk, there are two double doors that can only be open by a “handicap” button on the adjacent wall. Over the weekend, maintenance decided to rig the door so it stays open all the time.

For TWO WEEKS, even tho’ people could see plainly see the doors were wide open, (I mean seriously, how can you miss something like that?) people would still instinctively reach for that handicap button. And about a half second later, they would start shaking their heads. Obviously thinking something to the effect of: “WTF did I do that for?”