Looking at Procedural Memory Amid Simone Biles Report of “Twisties”

olympic gymnast cited procedural memory condition as cause for dropping out

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Simone Biles left the Olympics after having the “twisties.” This phenomenon is marked by a sudden forgetfulness of bodily awareness and orientation while midair. Procedural memory is a major part of learned physical actions and skills.

Woman driving and adjusting rear view mirror
Learning to drive a car is a perfect example of building muscle memory to perform a complicated set of physical tasks. Photo By TuiPhotoEngineer / Shutterstock

When Simone Biles suddenly dropped out of the Tokyo Olympics, worries—and rumors—about her health spread. Before long, Biles cited mental health issues before clarifying that she had the “twisties,” a condition in which a gymnast’s body essentially forgets how to perform. Other gymnasts were quick to support her experience and relate their own experiences with the condition.

Muscle memory, which is related to the twisties, is a kind of procedural memory. Procedural memory involves the body learning to perform certain physical actions and skills. In his video series Memory and the Human Lifespan, Dr. Steve Joordens, Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto Scarborough, explained it with a very familiar example.

Be Patient—Student Driver

Learning to drive a car is a perfect scenario for making very specific types of memories. It uses working memory, which is how we keep things “in mind” for the short term.

“When you begin learning a new motor procedure like this, you have to rely heavily on your working memory to guide you through the necessary actions and, while working memory is indeed very powerful, it’s really not very graceful,” Dr. Joordens said. “Anyone learning to drive, when you’re going through that process, you’re doing something that we’re going to call ‘creating a procedural memory.’

“Essentially, by going through some procedure over and over, the muscle movements that you need to perform that procedure become coordinated.”

Dr. Joordens said that this is how what begins as a very non-graceful attempt at performing a task evolves into a comfortable, sophisticated orchestra of movements. While this is true of driving both stick shifts and automatics, driving a stick shift requires additional procedural memories like properly feathering the clutch and the gas, moving the gear stick to the right place at the right time, and so on.

Hands-On (and -Off) Learning

Many skills that require specific physical movements can’t be learned very effectively simply through trial and error. According to Dr. Joordens, no matter what the skill, it’s likely that a teacher or book got us started by familiarizing us with the behaviors needed to perform the task. This is done in an attempt to convey a sense of structure to us.

“Usually a teacher will try to give you a head start by explaining some structure to you, and then they’ll ask you to practice within that structure,” he said. “You may understand the structure quite well, but when it comes to the muscle movements, understanding and performing are two different things.”

Dr. Joordens said that smooth performance only comes from practice, but we can usually only practice effectively by utilizing the structure after it’s been taught to us. An instructor can show us the basics, and then it’s up to us to practice over and over again until working memory becomes procedural memory.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily