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Like a light switch...

Posted Mar 20 2013 12:00am


I've always been fascinated by how the brain works and how we can try to get the best out of our brains, or more specifically: how we can get the best out of our minds.

In recent years science has revealed that our brains are much more pliable and adaptable than previously thought and the more understanding we have of the neurophysiology of the brain the more ways we can develop to manipulate that physiology or: train the brain.

Last week I started reading a book called The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D which is based on her very successful course at Stanford University called ‘The science of willpower’. In this book she relates the biological basis of willpower to the scientifically validated methods of improving willpower – i.e. how to train the brain to have more willpower.

Last week I also watched a science program on TV by the Horizon team called ‘The Creative brain – how insight works.’ The program followed several different groups of psychologists and neuroscientists around the world who are researching into the science of creativity. The advent of MRI scanning has revolutionised the study of the active brain enabling the understanding of human behaviour in relation to creativity to make great leaps forward. The program not only revealed what is happening in the brain when we have those ‘Eureka’ moments when our brains take a big creative leap forward but also how to manipulate those processes to make those moments more likely to happen – in other words, how to train the brain to become more creative.

Training the brain to enhance the processes that naturally occur in them is something that we already do in martial arts isn’t it? I was struck by how similar some of the strategies Dr. McGonigal advocates in her book to enhance willpower are things that martial artists interested in the more esoteric aspects of their art have been doing for centuries, they just haven’t understood the scientific basis of why they work!

In the book Dr. McGonigal advocates breath control to activate the pre-frontal cortex (the seat of willpower) and enhance heart rate variability which shifts the body and brain from a state of stress to one of self-control. The breath should be slowed down to about 4 – 6 breaths per minute for a few minutes. This apparently is very effective if you do it just before you face a willpower challenge – i.e. when deciding whether to eat that cream cake or whether to go to the gym after work for instance.

In martial arts terms we use breath control during the execution of kata and other techniques. Is this to enable us to maintain a high level of self-control and focus during the technique?  After all, the self-control we need during martial arts training is also a pre-frontal cortex activity.

Dr. McGonigal also advocates meditation as a means of enhancing self-control and willpower. Seems like martial artists were first there with this one as well. Science has shown that five minutes of meditation based on breath focus reduces stress and teaches the mind how to handle both inner distractions (cravings, worries, desires) and outer temptations (sounds, sights and smells). It is a powerful brain training exercise. Studies have shown that people who learn to meditate for 10 minutes a day become more focused on their daily tasks throughout the day.

I’m only part way through this book at the moment but I’m hoping it’ll reveal even more useful insights into how the mind reacts to willpower challenges and tips on how to improve self-control. By the way Dr McGonigal lists a huge range of scientific references to support her claims. Why not read the book yourself?

Interestingly the science programme on the creative brain also talked about the pre-frontal cortex – except in the complete opposite terms. To be more creative you have to switch off the pre-frontal cortex as it exerts too much control over your thinking – it makes you analytical rather than creative and inhibits you from thinking outside the box.

Creative thinking, particularly insight, i.e. those moments when the answer to the problem just pops into your head from nowhere (seemingly) resides in the right side of the brain. In tests, when people were given clues to a puzzle they were far more likely to get a ‘Eureka’ moment with the answer if the clues were presented to the left visual field rather than the right (information from the left visual field is processed by the right side of the brain).

Furthermore, MRI scanning of the brain during problem solving has shown that insight is not an instantaneous thing. In the seconds before the answer pops into the conscious brain there is rapid firing of alpha waves in the visual cortex (temporarily shutting it down) followed by a burst of gamma waves in the right side of the brain near the temporal lobe – then the idea pops into consciousness and you experience your Eureka moment. In fact the subconscious brain has been collating information about the problem from several areas of the brain, this is why it shuts off the visual cortex to avoid distractions from the outside world and down regulates the pre-frontal cortex (to stop you from consciously controlling the process and thus slowing it down). Fascinating isn’t it?

Apparently if you are too intelligent and controlling with your thoughts i.e. over analytical about problems you tend to have more ordered pathways in the brain and are less able to think divergently about problems. Less intelligent people tend to have more scattered pathways in the brain and are better at divergent thinking and more likely to have moments of creative insights. Remember, sophisticated MRI scanning and imaging during psychological and problem solving tests has concluded these findings – don’t just take my word for it, watch the programme on BBC I-player if you can.

It appears that our brains work faster when we are not consciously controlling them. In martial arts we already intuitively know that don’t we? We know that in a fight we should let the training take over and just react – muscle memory will do the rest- right? If we over-analyse a situation and try and make lots of conscious decisions about which technique to choose we become too slow and hesitant and will probably lose the fight. We need to switch off the pre-frontal cortex in order to fight effectively.  

To illustrate that fact for a moment: in the creative brain programme they had a seriously good improvised jazz musician improvise a piece of music whilst his brain was scanned in an MRI scanner. Remember he was making this music up as he went along and it was good and it was fast. Many areas of his brain were lit up – except the pre-frontal cortex which he had almost completely switched off. His fingers just did the talking over those keys, no conscious brain allowed!

Where does all this leave us in martial arts? You need your pre-frontal cortex switched on to train so that you can stay focused, in control and build up that muscle memory (which resides in the brain remember!). However, to fight, you need to switch the pre-frontal cortex off and let the sub-conscious brain take over. Martial arts are as much about brain training as body training – this is why we ignore the more esoteric aspects of our art at our peril. It’s not enough to just learn techniques – we have to understand how our brains work and train them too.

We need to learn how to switch our pre-frontal cortex on and off, like a light switch…


References: – how self-control works, why it matters, and what you can do to get more of it. Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D

Horizon: The Creative Brain – how insight works. Available on BBC i-player. 




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