Habits: why will we always know how to ride a bike?

Anchored in “procedural” memory, certain everyday gestures are practically impossible to forget. Automatisms are encoded, re-encoded, reinforced, reactivated…

There are things that cannot be forgotten: cycling, driving, tying shoelaces, handling a bow when you were a violinist… Once learned, these gestures are automatic for the rest of your life. Even at an advanced age, when memories fade, these gestures are still vivid. They call on a specific memory called “procedural memory” also say ” habits “. Its constitution requires the repetition of a simple or more complex movement carried out with more and more precision and whose realization requires less and less attention. Once acquired, this gesture is carried out implicitly without the person even knowing how to really explain how it proceeds, and ends up being reproduced automatically, without having to concentrate.

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This memory is essential in everyday life. It avoids having to control everything thanks to automatic basic mechanisms, to concentrate on something else. “All individuals are endowed with procedural memory from an early age, and it is particularly in demand among artists and sportsmen, explains Francis Eustache, director of research in neuropsychology at Inserm. If a musician had to focus on his gestures every time he ­picks up his instrument, he wouldn’t be able to progress, couldn’t read his score at the same time, he wouldn’t have the cognitive flexibility to acquire new skills. If a Formula 1 driver wins, it is thanks to his ability to analyze the track at the same time as he drives, to monitor his competitors and to adapt his driving according to all this thanks to procedural memory! »

Note that it most often involves movements, but the motor dimension is not systematic. It can be applied to more conceptual problems such as mathematics, for example. “A person who has solved the same type of equation for years will still know how to do it years later. He may have lost some skill and speed, but the mechanic will be there and easily reactivated. »

A permanently consolidated memory

But what makes this memory inalienable when memories fade or even disappear? “There is a big difference, recalls Francis Eustache: a specific event is recorded in the brain from time to time and may never be remembered. Over time, the memory is amalgamated with others, then ends up being diluted, even lost. Conversely, procedural memory is permanently consolidated. The same information is encoded, re-encoded, reinforced, reactivated. It can lose precision if it is not used for a long time, but the algorithm is there! I remember an elderly person who was given an accordion that she hadn’t played in years. She was amazed to be able to use it! » he illustrates.

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This memory capacity is therefore quite exceptional: early, long-lasting and even resistant to most brain damage! People with amnesia deprived of memories or those affected by Alzheimer’s disease who cannot remember a discussion the day before continue to know how to write or ride a bicycle. It should be noted that the cerebral structures involved are not the same. Procedural memory resides in structures deep in the heart of the brain, including the striatum and the cerebellum. Only neurological disorders affecting these regions are suspected of altering it, such as Parkinson’s or Huntington’s disease. And even… “It is difficult to distinguish between the motor impairments characteristic of these diseases and the alteration or not of procedural memory”, concludes Francis Eustache.


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