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Can Modern Neurological Research Improve the Way Martial Arts Are Taught?
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Published in Journal of Asian Martial Arts, Fall '03

 The martial arts is one of the last bastions of traditional methodology in our ever more complex and technologically advanced modern world. In many martial styles and systems, any suggestion of change in the way things are taught is met with skepticism at best, and often outright indignation! This article will look at some of the current research in the field of neuroscience, will attempt to show how these advances in knowledge apply to teaching the martial arts, and will make some suggestions about how that teaching might be improved.

Teaching and learning based on how the brain functions is a topic that the general education field has been paying a lot of attention to recently. Modern technological advances have allowed researchers in the field of neuroscience to learn more about the brain in the past 5 years than in all the years previous. Brain-based research allows teachers to understand exactly how the brain learns best, and thus allows them to help students learn as efficiently as possible. While martial arts is not your typical high school subject, the brain functions which control learning are universal. This newly-discovered information can be applied to the teaching of any skill, including martial arts.

In the first part of this article, we will look at a piece of technology that is allowing scientists to discover this new information. In the second part, we will discuss seven principles (Christison 1998, 1999, 2002) that have arisen from recent research on the brain, and how they  apply to teaching and learning, specifically within the martial arts.


Technological Advances       

            In the past, the only way to study the brain was to look at dead ones. Most information gained was simply on structure. The actual use of a particular structure was generally guesswork.  Recently, however, new technology has allowed researchers to look inside living brains. Scientists have discovered that the brain actually uses up to 25% of the bodys total energy requirements. Even though the brain is only about the size of both fists held together, it receives nearly 20% of the blood pumped at each heartbeat. Remember the old adage about staying warm during cold season? Keep your head and feet warm and the rest of your body will be fine. Now we know why this is true!

One specific type of new technology is called Positron Emission Tomography (PET).  A PET scan works by observing which parts of the brain are using the most nutrients, on the theory that the part of the brain used for a certain task would be the part most likely to need them the most. These nutrients are mainly glucose and oxygen. Some radioactive glucose is injected into the body, and then the individual performs some simple task.  As an example, if a person is given a picture to look at, there would be an increase in the radioactive glucose particles found in the occipital lobe in the middle of the back of the brain, indicating that is where the center of vision is located.  This new technology will eventually allow science to map out the function and use of every tiny piece of the brain.

Within the brain, there are two areas which are important to this discussion. They are the neocortex  and the limbic system. The neocortex is the part we see when looking at a brain. It is the thin layer of tissue which covers the rest of the brain matter. It has many folds and ridges and it is the center of logical thought and rational decision making. The limbic system includes two structures in the middle of the brain mass. The first is the amygdala, which is considered the center of emotion. The other is the hippocampus, which is known to be involved with learning and memory. These two areas of the brain are particularly important to any discussion of the martial arts, due to their relationships with stress and danger, and how the body responds to each.



Principles for Learning  

            The following seven principles (Christison 2002) are based on recent research into how the brain works that have some practical benefits for teaching in general.   


Principle 1:  The brain is a parallel processor

            The human brain is capable of doing many different things at one time (Ornstein and Sobel 1987).  Our thoughts, emotions, imagination and the autonomic functions all go on at the same time. In order to maximize the learning possibilities, teachers should guide the learner so that more than just a part of the brain is being used to learn the new skill. This means paying attention to learning styles and the different types of intelligence people exhibit.

Beginning martial arts training is aimed at installing a particular response to a particular action. As the student continues to progress, his conditioned responses also continue to grow, until finally, the student becomes someone who can respond to any situation with the correct response. This method has been used since the beginning of time, and in general it works well enough, yet by expanding the learners experience with training activities which address different learning styles and multiple intelligence theory, we can increase the likelihood that all of our students will gain something from the material being taught.

Some people learn best through visual cues, some through audio. Older students might benefit a great deal from discussion of a technique, adding the whys and wherefores, while younger, more physically-active students may actually learn better without cluttering up their brain with explanations. To compare the martial arts with language learning, explaining the rules of grammar to a student so that he can effectively apply them in conversation will be impossible until he has acquired a certain level of communication skill already.


Principle 2:  The brain downshifts under threat

            This principle is perhaps the most important of the seven principles for martial artists. When an individual feels threatened, intimidated, anxious or afraid, the brain downshifts (MacLean 1990). Downshifting is when the amygdala hijacks the brain for a short period of time (Goleman 1995). Blood flow decreases to the neocortex, the center of rational thought and logical decision making, and increases to the amygdala, the center of emotion. When blood flow decreases, of course the supply of glucose and oxygen is also decreased, thus proper functioning is impaired. For that short period of time, the average individual is unable to make rational or logical decisions. This is what causes people to freeze at the moment when some form of movement might save them. Their cognitive brain has been hijacked and they literally can't move!

            For the martial artist, training needs to focus on means to overcome that downshift. In the past, the constant repetition of a technique until it was ingrained was the likely method. This is what we call muscle memory, though the actual term used to describe it is procedural memory. Each time you perform a particular activity, neurons in the brain fire off, or are stimulated. As you repeat the activity, these neurons become more and more efficient at the task, until finally, only the trigger for the activity is needed for the neurons to be able to perform the whole sequence. In other words, you react to something before your conscious brain has even noticed it.

            We now know that emotion plays a major part in dealing with stress. A students feelings and emotions can affect his ability to learn, as well as his ability to perform.  We have also learned that emotions are crucial to memory because they facilitate the storage and recall of information (Rosenfield 1988). Therefore, it makes sense to try to use emotions while training. Learning a skill and training to use a skill are different. The learning should take place in an emotionally-positive atmosphere. Emotion and cognition cannot be separated (Ornstein and Sobel 1987) if we are to maximize learning. The drill hall atmosphere, with lots of shouting, humiliation and stress doesn't lend itself to fast and successful learning.

            On the other hand, once the skill has been learned, training to use the skill must take place under more stressful conditions. We must try to trigger downshifting during training so that the learner can begin to adapt. Like anything else, if we can experience the shift enough times, our brains can begin to adapt to it. We then would not have to rely solely on the procedural (muscle) memory, which does not always provide the correct response to a particular stimulus, especially if the stimulus is not exactly like the one used for training the response.


Principle 3:  The search for meaning occurs through patterning

            Patterning is the meaningful categorization and organization of information (Nummela and Rosengren 1986).  The brain attempts to understand and learn by seeking and finding patterns in the stimuli it receives, and each individual does it differently. Because the brain is looking for and creates patterns, training material should be presented in such a way that meaningful patterns can be found easily. Once the students see where something is going, it becomes much easier to pick up the details along the way. Dont keep students in the dark about the purpose for a particular training section or block. Help them to see the relevance and the overall learning will improve as well as speed up. 


Principle 4:  The brain is meaning driven

            The brain strives to understand constantly. If  we cannot make sense out of a situation, the result is a state of confusion and/or anxiety. Every time the brain discovers a new pattern and can extract meaning from that pattern, the learners perceptual maps grow or increase. In other words, every time we encounter something new, the brain will try to make sense out of it, and once it does, we will always be able to understand it if we encounter it again in the future. If it cannot make sense out of it, it means there was no pattern to access, or the pattern was so unclear that the brain could not discern it. The next time the same situation is met, it will again cause confusion, until at some point a pattern can be discovered and understanding occurs.

            The relevance of this knowledge for teachers of martial arts is to help design the activities, drills and exercises which are used to train the students. Students can be taught technique after technique and they will remember them, but rote memorization does not automatically mean that the memorized techniques are usable. A student can be full of knowledge but be starved for meaning. In other words, he may know how to do isolated techniques, and may even be able to perform a complete drill with a training partner, yet he cannot actually use the knowledge in a real encounter because he does not truly understand the application, or meaning, of the technique. Certainly, he would not be able to transfer the knowledge to another scenario. Teachers must spend time making sure that the student actually understands and can use the knowledge after it has been gained. It is often because of inadequate understanding of the actual use of what we teach that we see or hear about long-time practitioners of the martial arts getting beaten in a street fight against someone with little-to-no formal training, but who may have had a great deal of actual experience. Knowledge is useless without practical applicability.


Principle 5:  Each brain is unique

            This seems like a no-brainer, yet in most schools, students are taught in large groups where everyone is required to perform each technique in an identical manner, and exactly the same as the instructor and everyone else. Since each brain is unique, and processes information (patterns, etc.) differently, teachers must be  willing to acknowledge and accept different interpretations and methods. Lateral thinking, which is the ability to come up with a right answer through unexpected or uncommon means, is often overlooked or even frowned upon, and it shouldn't be.

Jensen (1995) gives the example of a physics exam where the professor asked students to use a barometer to tell the height of a building. The expected answer is to measure the air pressure at the base and at the top and to compute the difference. However, several other answers were given that were examples of lateral thinking. One student wrote that he needed to measure the shadows of the barometer and the building and compute the ratio. Another suggested that a string could be tied to the barometer, it could be thrown off the building, and the string measured. A third thought he might just take the barometer to the architect or engineer who built the building and offer to give him the barometer in exchange for the information. 

While we need to be sure that the student does understand the correct, or expected  response, we should also encourage the more varied responses. The ability to perform a skill, or set of movements, is only a small part of the martial arts. The ability to take the knowledge and apply it over a wide range of situations is more important, and students who can come up with varied responses on their own may actually  have a better chance  to deal with an unexpected situation.

We should not jump to conclusions about our students and their ability (or inability) to perform correct sequences or techniques. Body type, personality and athletic ability all play roles in the quality of a students martial arts. A non-athletic individual may take longer to learn and be able to use a particular technique, yet in the end may come up with a more efficient way to execute it due to his physical limitations. We often see the talented individual who learns everything very quickly, yet never actually becomes an expert, because he never had to push himself, and the teacher didn't push him either. The average learner will rarely reach his potential without some good solid pushing from a teacher!

This need for the teacher to push the students with tougher and tougher requirements helps both teacher and student. Redfield and Rousseau (1981) have reported that the better quality of questions asked, the more the brain is challenged to think. The teacher must challenge himself to continue to be able to challenge the student! Most people find that their own understanding of their art expands immediately upon starting to teach, just for this reason. As we search our memory for good explanations to students questions, we deepen our own understanding, and the cycle continues.



Principle 6:  Movement and exercise improve brain functioning

            We know that exercise can improve health, but research shows that it also improves thinking and learning (Dienstbier 1989). The more we exercise, the quicker the adrenaline response and recovery in the brain. Of course, just the fact that the heart is pumping faster means that more blood flows to the brain, carrying with it additional oxygen and glucose.

            Most martial arts training does involve physical exercise, but it is critical to include physical activities all the time, even during the initial introduction of new material, in order to have the brain functioning at its optimal learning capability.



Principle 7:  Brain growth is enriched by continued learning

            Jacobs, Schall and Scheibel (1993) showed that the more education a person receives, the more dendritic branching in the brain. Dendrites are the extensions of neurons which connect with other neurons. The more branching that occurs, the more everything is tied together, sort of like connecting more computers to a network, which increases the overall computing power. Problem solving is to the brain as aerobic exercise is to the body (Christison 2002). We stay smarter by working out with mental weights.

            One of the ways to work the brain is by engaging in high-challenge, low-stress activity. The students must feel the need to struggle to learn, yet not feel as if they will be punished or penalized for not learning, or not learning quickly enough. This relates to the previous principles where the teacher needs to maintain a positive classroom atmosphere, where he needs to push the students with increasingly difficult material, and where the stress comes after the material has been mastered, not during its acquisition.




            It is likely that most martial arts instructors do not think of themselves as teachers, in the sense of a high school or elementary teacher, and do not generally keep up with or pay attention to academic research within the education field. Because there are no set requirements for the training required to become a teacher of the martial arts, many teachers of the martial arts just teach it the way they learned it, without considering any other possibilities. However, because the principles within the brain that govern learning are universal, attention needs to be paid to these new ideas. As we continue to gain more and more information about how the brain learns, we won't need to just blindly accept and depend on the old ways anymore. We should be able to improve the teaching methodologies to take advantage of this new knowledge.

             Of course, as we learn more, it seems that many times, the old ways are proven to actually be the best ways, which says a lot for the knowledge the old masters were able to gain simply through observation and daily practice. It also does not mean that we need to change teaching methods just for the sake of change. The key is for teachers of the martial arts to keep an open mind about this new information, and the possible new ways to use it. Just because something has always been done this way, it doesn't mean that it is the best way.





Christison, M. 1998.  Applications of brain-based research to second language education.  Plenary speech presented at the 32nd TESOL convention, Seattle, WA, March.


Christison, M. 2002. Brain-based research and language teaching. English Teaching Forum, 40, 2, pp. 2-7.


Dienstbier, R. 1989. Periodic adrenaline arousal boosts health, coping. Brain-mind Bulletin. 14, 9.


Goleman, D. 1995  Emotional intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. New York:  Bantam Books.


Jacob, B., M. Schall, and A. B. Scheibel. 1993. A quantitative dendritic analysis of Wernickes area in humans: Gender, hemispheric and environmental factors. Journal of Comparative Neurology, 327, 1, pp. 91-111.


Jensen, E. 1995.  The learning brain. Del Mar, CA: The Brain Store


MacLean, P. 1990. The triune brain in education.. New York: Plenum Press


Nummela, R. and T. Rosengren. 1986. Whats happening in students brains may redefine teaching. Educational Leadership, 43, 8, pp. 49-53.


Ornstein, R> and D. Sobel. 1987. The healing brain: Breakthrough discoveries about how the brain keeps us healthy. New York: Simon and Schuster.


Redfield, D.L. and E. W. Rousseau. 1981. A meta-analysis of experimental research on teacher questioning behavior. Review of Educational Research, 51, 2, pp. 237-245.


Rosenfield, I. 1988. The invention of memory. New York: Basic Books