This happened about two years ago. It was close to the end of a workday. I was a little stressed out, more than a little tired, a coworker was standing next to me asking for a certain file, and so I went to my computer’s terminal, keyed in three simple characters: c:\…
…and then I froze.
c:\ is a perfectly fine incantation for when you want to find a file, and you intend to start at the very top. It will work on every PC ever made. Other computers have equivalent sequences that achieve the same purpose; on a Mac, for example, you would type in cd ~ instead. The thing is, I was using a Mac that day. What was even more interesting: I’ve been using Macs – exclusively – for the past twelve years.
Somewhere in the depths of my muscle memory, c:\ was still there from my long-gone PC days, dormant for over a decade, apparently just waiting to be awakened under certain conditions – such as being tired, stressed out, and absent-minded.
That seemed like the most incredible discovery (what else is hiding in there?) and some time later, in the course of researching the book, I ventured out to learn much more about muscle memory.
Lesson one: don’t call it that. The proper term is “motor memory.” Second discovery? Motor memory is completely independent from our main, declarative memory. Did you ever experience someone asking you about a keyboard shortcut, and realize you had to watch your fingers perform it in order to answer the question? Turns out, it’s just how we’re built.
But then, motor memory is also still memory. Which means it has that one counterintuitive property that we take for granted: you can’t actually forget anything. Sure, memories get reshaped, bundled with other memories, moved behind certain triggers – but they never truly disappear. It’s the same with motor memory. There were studies of people sitting down to a keyboard after twenty-five years – and picking up typing with very little trouble. Put two of these together and you will arrive at the same astonishing realization I once had: at some point in your life you might forget who you are, but you will still know how to type.