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Train your brain


Training is the key to becoming a great martial artist; you must steadily train until you become one. Once you reach this goal, your brain will process self-defense or fighting decisions much faster than the brains of people that are not martial artists, or even of other martial artists who have not trained as long and hard as you have trained.

Only a tiny portion of the brain is dedicated to conscious behavior, the majority of the brain works behind the scenes to regulate things such as breathing, and to process the vast amount of sensual input being received by the brain every second. If this did not occur, some brain-damaged people would forget to breathe and suffocate.

The goal is to train at an activity until the activity becomes an unconscious behavior, a procedural memory, such as driving. An experienced driver does not think about driving, it just happens.

Without adequate training at an activity, the mind must consciously monitor the activity, which takes time and may lead to confusion. The poem "The Puzzled Centipede" is an example of how consciously thinking about an unconscious action may lead to confusion:
A centipede was happy quite.
Until a frog in fun
Said, "Pray tell which leg comes after which?"
This raised her mind to such a pitch.
She lay distracted in the ditch
Not knowing how to run.

Athlete's brain

A trained athlete’s brain operates at a speed much greater than the brain of an untrained person. In 2001, the Yankees were in an American League playoff game with the Oakland Athletics. Yankee Shortstop Derek Jeter saved the game and the series when he grabbed an errant throw coming in from right field and then gently tossed the ball to catcher Jorge Posada, who tagged the base runner at home plate. To make the play, Jeter had to master both conscious decisions, such as whether to intercept the throw, and unconscious decisions, such as how hard to throw the ball. Jeter made these decisions correctly, in an instant.

On August 20, 1974, in a game between the California Angels and the Detroit Tigers, a Nolan Ryan fastball was clocked at 100.9 mph. This means the ball reached home plate in 4-tenths of a second. The unconscious part of a hitter's brain can process the visual data it receives from the eyes and cause the body to swing the bat in less than this time, else it would be impossible for batters to hit the fastball. The conscious mind takes about 5-tenths of second to react to the pitch so, if the batter thinks about hitting the ball, he will always be too late. This is also why a highly trained fighter is able can avoid a punch before being consciously aware of it.

A marksman’s task is easy; he or she simply points the weapon and fires it, and yet each shot requires many instantaneous decisions, such as how much to shift the aim in response to wind and temperature. Since the shooter does not have perfect control over his body, a slight movement in one part of the body may require many quick adjustments in other parts. Each shot is a combination of minor adjustments made by combining previous experiences learned in training with whatever variations are being experienced at the moment.

Learning detailed skills

To find out how the brains of athletes make these instant decisions, in 2008, Reza Shadmehr of Johns Hopkins University and John Krakauer of Columbia University reviewed studies in which the brains of healthy people and of brain-damaged patients who have trouble controlling their movements were scanned. They found that several regions of the brain collaborate to make the computations needed for detailed motor actions.

The brain begins a movement by setting a goal, and then it calculates the best course of action to perform it correctly. For example, as the brain decides to punch the head of an opponent, it starts issuing commands to the body to carry out the punch; however, it also begins to make predictions about what should occur to make the punch successful, using the information it has learned from hundreds of successful punches performed during training.

If those predictions do not match what is occurring, the brain makes changes to the punch to reduce error. The study demonstrates that the brain does not merely issue rigid commands; it continually updates its solution to the problem of how to move the body. Athletes perform better than non-athletes because it appears their brains find better solutions than do the brains of non-athletes.

The unconscious mind may be trained to perform intricate tasks without the conscious mind even knowing what is happening. Commercial hatchers that raise chickens to lay eggs want to know which hatchlings are females, so they do not waste time and money on raising male chickens. Since male and female chicks look almost the same, this task can be arduous and time-consuming.

The Japanese developed a way to determine the sex of one-day-old chicks, but the problem is that no one, including the Japanese, knows how it is done. The sorters just use a quick glance at the rear end of a chick and know the sex, even though they cannot explain how they know it. To train the sorters, a master watches apprentices examine a chick and toss it into a male or female bin. The student is then told whether the choice was correct or incorrect. This procedure is performed repeatedly for months until the apprentices become masters at unconsciously sexing chicks, even though they do not know how they can do it.

During World War II, the same trial-and-error method was used to train British aircraft spotters to identify incoming aircraft quickly and accurately. The spotters could identify aircraft quickly but could not tell you how they were able to do it.

Martial arts training works in much the same way. A master watches over a student and constantly corrects the way a student performs a technique. After months of training, the student begins to unconsciously perform the technique perfectly without being aware of it.

Restful brains

In January 2010, Claudio Del Percio of Sapienza University in Rome reported the results of a study in which he measured the brain waves of karate champions and ordinary people, while they were at rest with their eyes closed, and then he compared the results. He found that the karate champions emitted stronger alpha waves, which indicated they were in a more restful state. This finding suggests that an athlete's brain is like a powerful engine that is idling, ready to perform instantly.

Del Percio also measured brain waves of athletes and non-athletes while they were in action. In one experiment, he observed pistol shooters as they fired 120 times. In another experiment, he had fencers balance on one foot. Both cases resulted in similar results, the athletes' brains were quieter, which means they devoted less brain activity to these motor tasks than non-athletes did.

Del Percio theorized that the brains of athletes are more efficient, so they produce the desired result with the help of fewer neurons. The research suggests that the more efficient a brain performs, the better job it performs in sports. The researchers also found that when pistol shooters hit their target, their brains tended to be quieter than when they missed.

Brain anatomy changes

A part of what makes an athlete great may be the result of good genes, but even then, they need lots of practice to develop the brain of an athlete. When someone begins to practice a martial art, the person’s brain begins to change, and the changes continue for many years. Scientists at the University of Regensburg in Germany documented the process by scanning people as they learned how to juggle. After a week, the jugglers were already developing extra gray matter in some areas of the brain and their brains continued to change for months.

Practice not only changes the brain's anatomy, but it also helps different regions of the brain communicate better with each other. Some neurons strengthen their connections to other neurons, while they simultaneously weaken their connections to other neurons. During early training, neurons in the front of the brain (the prefrontal cortex) are active, which enables the person to focus on a task and consider a range of responses. With practice, the prefrontal cortex grows quiet since predictions get faster and more accurate, so not as much careful oversight of responses is needed.

Quiet cortex

Several years ago, Matthew Smith and Craig Chamberlain of the University of Northern Colorado examined the connection between the quieting of the cortex and athletic ability. They had expert and unskilled soccer players dribble a ball through a slalom course of cones. At the same time, the players had to keep an eye on a projector screen on the wall to see when a particular shape appeared. Even with the second task, the seasoned soccer players could dribble at nearly full speed; while the unskilled players did much worse than when they were undistracted. The disparity suggests that dribbling did not tax an expert player’s prefrontal cortex as heavily, leaving it free to deal with other challenges.

Training helps

As the brains of athletes become more efficient, they learn how to make sense of new situations sooner. For example, in cricket, a bowler can hurl a ball at 100 miles an hour, giving batsmen a mere half-second to calculate its path.

In 2006, Sean Muller of the University of Queensland in Australia ran an experiment to see how well cricket batsmen can anticipate a bowler's pitch. He chose three types of cricket players, ranging in skill from national champions down to university players. The players watched videos of bowlers throwing balls. After each video was over, they had to predict what kind of pitch was coming and where it would land. In some cases, the video was cut off at the point at which the bowler released the ball. In other cases, the players got to see only the first step or two that the bowler took while the ball was still in his hand.

Elite players anticipated the outcome of a pitch much better than less-skilled players. They could make fairly good predictions after watching the bowlers take just a single step, and, if they got to see the pitch up to the moment of release, their accuracy improved dramatically. The first predictions of less skilled players were no better than chance, and their predictions improved only if they were able to watch the pitch until the ball was in flight. This study suggests that predicting the outcome of a task seems to involve the same areas of the brain that the athlete develops in practice, which would explain why athletes tend to fare better on challenges that involve skills in which they have practiced.

In a related study, Salvatore Aglioti of Sapienza University assembled a group of people, some of whom were professional basketball players, and scanned their brains as they watched movies of other players taking free throws. Some of the movies stopped before the ball left the players’ hands; others stopped just after the release of the ball. The subjects then had to predict whether the ball went through the hoop or not. The pros in the group showed a lot of activity in those regions of the brain that control hand and arm muscles, but, in the non-athletes, those regions were relatively quiet. It appears that the basketball players were mentally reenacting the free throws in their minds, using their expertise to guess how the players in the movies would perform.

Rewired brains

These studies suggest that some martial artists are great because they can rewire their brains according to certain rules. As neuroscientists decipher those rules, they may find ways to give people better skills.

In February 2009, Krakauer and Pablo Celnik of Johns Hopkins offered a glimpse of what those interventions might look like. The scientists had volunteers move a cursor horizontally across a screen by pinching a device called a force transducer between thumb and index finger. The harder each subject squeezed, the faster the cursor moved. Each player was asked to move the cursor back and forth between a series of targets, trying to travel the course as quickly as possible without overshooting. The group trained 45 minutes a day for five days. By the end of the training, the players were making far fewer errors.

The scientists also trained another group of people on the same game, except they put a battery on top of the head of each subject that sent a small current through the surface of the brain toward a group of neurons in the primary motor cortex. The electric stimulation allowed these people to learn the game better. By the end of five days of training, they could move the cursor faster and make fewer errors than the control group. For three months, the subjects came back into the lab from time to time to perform the task again. Everyone got rusty over time, but at the end of the testing, the people who had gotten the electrode boost remained superior to the others.

This study brings up an ethical issue. Would it be cheating for a black belt to wear a portable electrode as she practiced her patterns? After all, she is only training her brain.


  • Zimmer, C. (2010). The Brain. Discover Magazine. February issue.
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