Can You Forget How To Swim?

As the saying goes, ‘you never forget how to ride a bike’. The same applies to swimming. Likewise, typing, driving a car, playing the piano, and even climbing stairs are all examples of procedural memory (like swimming or riding a bike).

Procedural memory cannot be forgotten because we learn it through repetition, and hence our brains recall it subconsciously from our long-term memory.

So the simple answer to the question ‘Can you forget how to swim’? No, you don’t forget your swimming knowledge. However, if you were unlucky enough to suffer a brain injury that affected implicit long term memory, then it could be possible for you to forget this skill.

So let’s dive in and take a deeper look!

Implicit Long-Term Memory

These are memories that influence behaviour. But they are not consciously thought about.

And there are two ways in which this happens, namely procedural memory and priming.

Priming: Our brains are primed by our experiences. For example, if you have recently seen or heard some information, you are more likely to have it implicitly recalled from your long-term memory.

Advertisers use this to great effect. Say you are watching TV and you see an advert about the latest burger from McDonald’s or Pizza from Domino’s, then that is what you will think of when you next get hungry or crave food. Have you ever wondered why they advertise fast food at halftime of the game you are watching? They are appealing to our subconscious.

Procedural Memory: A large majority of implicit memories are procedural by nature, and once they are learned, we can retain them for a lifetime.

To add some more examples to the ones we introduced earlier, there are things like recalling the lyrics to a song, washing dishes, and even handwriting.

Does swimming come naturally?

Swimming is not a natural human activity or natural ability that people have, unlike most land animals. Swimming is a complex skill that needs to be learned over time and through repetition. The way this is taught to us is through swimming lessons, typically as children.

However, a natural occurrence in infants/toddlers (0-6 months old) and many other animals is the diving reflex, a set of physiological responses that override the basic homeostatic reflexes.

In short, this means that while humans don’t instinctively swim, we do naturally know that we should hold our breath when we are submerged. This is known as the diving reflex and is the body’s natural response.

And because the human brain remembers swimming, like riding a bike, as a procedural process. So generally speaking, we learn how to swim at an early age because most of these memories are taught in the formative years.

One more nuance to consider about natural swimming ability is our actual body physiology. The average person has a body density slightly lower than fresh water. Both bone and muscle are denser than fat. Therefore muscular and skinny body shapes are at a slight swimming disadvantage.

What to do if you haven’t swam for years?

Returning to the pool or ocean for a swim after an extended layoff should be treated with care, even if you are a decent swimmer. And although we now know that we can’t forget how to swim, there are steps that we can take to make the process of getting back into swimming easier.

Step 1: Re-wet your feet

This is often the hardest step to undertake. But, whether you are nervous about your fitness levels or unsure about your technique, the simple act of simply getting back into the water can make all the difference. It may be to do just one length or ten. It doesn’t matter. Just get used to the water again.

Step 2: Set achievable goals

Knowing exactly what you want to achieve will help give you confidence once you reach it. It could be time or distance related. Be sure that these goals are difficult enough to push yourself but not unattainable so that you lose confidence.

Step 3: Follow your plan

When swimming is taught to kids, there is always a plan to be followed by the swimming instructor. And by following the plan children can progress their swimming skills. The same applies to getting back into the sport. Start slow, and don’t worry about what other swimmers think. Follow the process you have laid out from the beginning.

Step 4: Step up your volume

Once you are back into your flow after a few weeks, consider increasing your swimming volume or frequency. For example, you could choose to double the number of pool lengths you swim each week or increase from twice a week to four times a week.

Step 5: Try something new

Most swimmers tend to stay in the same discipline. However, trying another format can not only be fun and exciting but also reset your motivation levels. For example, if you have only swum in pools, consider swimming in open water (wild swimming).

Is swimming a lifetime skill?

For most people, swimming is a lifetime skill, and as was mentioned earlier, you would have to be extremely unlucky to suffer the type of brain injury that would cause you to forget how to swim. In fact, you would more than only forget how to swim, but also forget all the other procedural memories such as driving your car or how to write.

All the swim lessons you may have received at an early age does not go to waste because even after a long layoff, we still know how to swim instinctively.

Is it normal not to be able to swim?

Many people, predominantly adults, do not know how to swim. And it is an entirely regular occurrence because many factors contribute to why some of us don’t learn how to swim.

The human brain plays a critical role in enabling us to learn this complex skill, but it is also closely related to why some people cannot swim. And the primary factor is fear of water itself which can be caused by;

  1. Post-traumatic swimming experiences
  2. Unlying cases of aquaphobia

Having an underlying trauma from a past experience is not only extended to swimming but to an immeasurable amount of other reasons why people can’t perform specific tasks. 

In the case of swimming, this could occur if a child is below the water surface and felt uncomfortable. If this is not addressed and overcome, it can turn into worse anxiety the next time.

This segways into the other fear factor, aquaphobia, which is usually engrained through a traumatic experience like a near-drowning. But even if the incident did not personally happen to you. This is because the process of learning to swim is closely related to how the brain is primed (implicit long-term memory). The most famous example of all time is the movie Jaws.

As with any phobia, there are varying degrees of severity. For example, some people may only be afraid of deep water and waves, while others fear shallow waters and even bathtubs.

Final Thoughts

Swimming knowledge is something that you will have for a lifetime. By doing sufficient repetitions through swimming lessons, the skill will be engrained as procedural memory.

So the answer to the question of can you forget how to swim is no, you can’t.

Swimming is a life skill once learned; however, getting back into the activity should be done in a well-thought-out manner to get the maximum benefit from it.

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