Mind, Memory and The Martial Arts


Your brain weighs a little more than three pounds, yet it consumes about one fourth of the body’s total oxygen intake. All your body’s cells report to your brain, and either obey your brain’s signals and bring health to your body, or disobey and bring harm to your body.


Your brain is a loom weaving strands of ten million neurons into your thought process. Your whole mental process consists of neurons transmitting certain chemicals between each other across gaps known as synapses. Each cell can communicate with every other cell at terrific speed. In one cubic millimeter of your brain there are one billion cell connections, which totals to about 400 billion junctions in a gram of brain tissue. Your brain manages the duties of the other 70 to 100 trillion cells in the body. A single neuron may receive information from numerous other neurons via thousands of synapses (junctures).


Your brain can detect pain through millions of touch sensors that cover the surface of your skin. Some areas are more sensitive than others. Your skin must be able to sense various pressures such as using fingers to play the guitar, writing with a pen, the feel of grass under your bare feet, or even when applying pressure point or joint-lock techniques on a training partner.


Intelligence is probably a combined effort by the entire nervous network to integrate and process the correct signals needed for a particular circumstance. In making a decision, neural networks are designed to be able to inhibit all systems except the one responsible for ordering that desired decision. This network must gather and process information from key neurons. Then it must order certain sequences elsewhere in the body while at the same time blocking signals that might inhibit positive behavior.


Your brain is an organizer of conditions in which everything is in its proper place and functions correctly. This implies a fixed plan and a created system. These facts on how your brain works and the complexity of it are important for the martial arts teacher to understand that there are various degrees of intelligence among students, determined by hereditary, environment, education and health. Because of these factors some students can grasp material at a fairly rapid pace and assimilate vast amounts of information, while others learn at a much slower pace, and must absorb certain data by bits and pieces. In other words, there are no smart or dumb students but, because there are certain levels of brain development, information will be absorbed in varying degrees by different individuals. In recognizing this, the martial arts teacher can discover different methods of teaching to get the desired information across at various intelligence levels.


Again, the more we understand the inner workings of the human body, the better prepared the teacher becomes in understanding how to work with and develop each student that enters the martial arts studio, who is looking for self-confidence, self-improvement and self-protection. Continuing on, we know that your brain can thrive and improve with age if you keep it in good working order, exercise it daily and allow it to develop greater capacity to absorb information that helps us to stay sharp.


Think of your brain as a muscle. The more you flex and strengthen this muscle, the more it develops. Think of it as mental weight lifting. If your brain is not challenged daily, your mind will begin to deteriorate at a frightening speed, as your mind becomes starved for novelty and challenge. Brain power depends on the number of dendrites we have at our use. Dendrites are extensions of nerve cells which receive incoming information. New information and new skills spur dendrites to branch out as tree roots do. This branching out triggers millions of new connections (synapses) between nerve cells. Your brain is like a computer that is upgraded with a larger memory board, which allows us to perform greater skills and to remember more complex things, if used and exercised daily.


New activities (like a difficult kata) arouse reticular information in your brain, which is a nerve cell system located in your brain stem. After we learn a new skill it soon becomes routine. Your brain receives less stimulation and the reticular information operates at lower levels of activity. Obviously, to keep our minds alert and on the cutting edge is to learn new skills and receive new information that awakens the reticular formation.


For the martial artist this is where learning advances and more difficult kata and routines come into play. This is where the proverbial “killing two birds with one stone” is put into action.

Not only are you exercising your mind but, at the very same time you are enhancing and further developing new martial arts skills.


I have noticed that in competition, those who are able to perform advanced and intricate katas well, seem to be very intelligent individuals. Reaching higher levels of proficiency continues to massage and stimulate the brain. Anyone can be taught to fight, as it does not take an intelligent person to do this, as we can see from some of the interviews of some professional boxers on television.


This also raises the issue of why it is so very important to have mature, intelligent black belts represent our martial arts industry. Check out the words “mature” and “intelligent.” At what age level, at what experience level is the brain developed fully enough to be able to handle the difficult requirements of earning a qualified black belt, while also being mature and intelligent enough to handle it? Can an eight year old black belt be on the same intelligence level of an eighteen or twenty-eight year old black belt? Is it honest and fair to group these three groups together as equals in knowledge and skills? Learning and developing new techniques and forms is a visual, muscular and mental task that requires concentration and coordination.


Other activities can play a major roll in developing and sharpening your mind.


  1. Learn other skills not related to the martial arts (crossword puzzles, reading, etc.).
  2. Do basic math in your head.
  3. When confronted with a problem, develop several solutions. Problem solving will keep you in the habit of thinking analytically and keep your brain well tuned.
  4. If you are right handed, learn to do things with your left hand; left handed people, do things with your right hand. This results in stimulation that keeps your mind active and alert. Martial artists should learn to do techniques from both the right and left side, as you never know from what angle a competitor or attacker may come from.
  5. Cross train in another sport or art that stimulates physical activity that is new to you.
  6. Associate with interesting and stimulating people that are involved in a variety of pursuits. Being in their company and sharing information can provide enormous mental dividends.
  7. Take up a new hobby every three to five years. However, make the martial arts a lifetime endeavor.
  8. As mentioned, learn to do crossword puzzles. Start with the easy ones and in time move onto the more difficult ones.
  9. Give your brain a workout. Go over all the information that you have learned in the martial arts up to your present belt rank. To add form and precision do everything in slow motion. The object in this case is not to tire your body out with physical exercise but, to stimulate and to exercise your brain. Analyze each and every move. The more inventive and vivid you make your images, and the closer they relate to the information you are trying to recall, the better you will be able to remember past information.
  10. Beware of excessive worry and stress. Too much stress produces chemicals called cortisols, which can actually kill off nerve cells in your brain. When this occurs it is time to recall and practice the meditation information that you probably learned in your particular art.
  11. Get enough sleep. Lack of proper rest interferes with concentration, memory and mental alertness.
  12. Exercise, physical workouts generate endorphins, which counteract depression.
  13. Avoid medications that impair memory, such as sleeping pills, tranquilizers and prescription painkillers.
  14. A well-balanced diet includes sufficient amounts of “B” vitamins, zinc and selenium that are essential for a healthy nervous system and which keeps your brain well-oiled. Avoid high-fat, high-cholesterol diets that can lead to stroke and memory loss.


In summary, remember brain capacity and mental abilities do not have to decline with age.


  1. It is a myth that brain cells are lost as we age. There is no great difference between healthy older brains and healthy younger brains.
  2. A stimulating environment can create new supporting cells, known as glial, in your brain at any age. Neurons (message carrying cells) can also be enhanced at any age.
  3. Also remember, for this to happen, your brain needs exercise, nourishment and protection from toxins (poisonous substances). One important brain function is to process sensory input. Exercising the mind increases the brain’s metabolism (chemical changes in living cells by which energy is provided) and blood flow, which enhances your ability to receive and process information.
  4. A follow up point is that we know that all martial artists need daily aerobic exercise to strengthen the heart and to trim the waistline (which is where your punching, blocking and kicking power come from) but, do you know that aerobic exercise is also very important for your brain? It increases blood and oxygen flow, boosting your brain’s production of stress, relieving endorphins, which suppresses depression.
  5. Continue to learn and perfect. Every time you learn something new you create new connections between neurons.
  6. Improve your memory. Write down what you want to remember and then repeat it out loud. This stimulates both the right (visual) and left (verbal) parts of your brain.
  7. Eat a healthful diet. Keep sugar intake, salt and fat down to a minimum.
  8. Avoid tobacco and alcohol. Tobacco smoke reduces oxygen flow to your brain, while alcohol actually destroys brain cells.


      There are numerous reasons why the martial artist must stay in physical and mental shape. Your martial arts is a way of life and a long time, consuming challenge, while sporting activities are a short time activity with involvement dwindling with age. A strong body, a sharp mind and an enlightened spirit should last a lifetime.


This section of the use and functions of your brain is only a small part of what it takes to be a truly great martial artist and a quality black belt. Surely there is more to the martial arts than punching, kicking or throwing. I believe that the martial arts have been watered down because of knowledge lost, or worse yet, knowledge not learned. If we only teach self-defense, then the arts can be relegated to simplicity. However, once we add proper exercise, sports medicine, healing, how the body works, philosophy, motivation, the skills required to teach special children, or the physically impaired, proper diet, etc. into the mix, then the martial arts become very complex.


If we have any chance at all to elevate our teachers to a professional level, than, as an industry, we are going to have to elevate our knowledge. Remember, to be a professional swimmer, we must know how to swim.


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This page was last updated on 02/20/11    

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