This is the story of electric guitar legends, martial arts masters, and neuroplasticity in motor learning. This story might culminate in an overall approach to life. Maybe. Whether or not it does probably depends on your perspective.
Let's start with the bits about electric guitar legends. I’ve always loved the sound of electric guitar—whether in jazz, blues, or heavy metal—and I love playing guitar. I most freely admit thought, that while I do play, I am not an electric guitar legend. The only exceptions are those fleeting moments where I nail a riff and briefly imagine my own legendary status for a few seconds.
Despite my own lack of guitar legend status, I have been to a great many concerts and marvelled at some real guitar legends. Three that are relevant here are Neal Schon from Journey, Eric Clapton from, well, a lot of bands including Cream, and Tony Iommi from Black Sabbath.
I have watched lots of videos of all 3 of these famous axe masters and seen them all live in concert. At concerts for each I was struck by something they all had in common. It was actually something quite simple—they didn't look like they were having to work too hard to play the guitar.
Please note I don't mean they were loafing around. On the contrary, they were producing amazing riffs and spectacular solos. But they looked very calm and relaxed the whole time. They looked extremely efficient, in other worlds.
Which brings us to martial arts masters. I remember vividly a moment from a karate seminar I attended about 25 years ago. I had just achieved my shodan rank (in English this is translated as 1st degree black belt but a better translation is "entrance black belt") and was marvelling over the skills of one of my teachers. I remember thinking that I needed to better understand what my teacher was doing so I could do it too.
This thought stayed with me as time moved on. But my thinking was reshaped at a seminar a few years later. Again I was marvelling at the abilities of one of my teachers. Again I thought about how I could improve my performance by doing what he was doing. And then I noticed something I just hadn't properly observed before. My teacher was producing very powerful movements and mounting effective attacks and counters, but he looked very calm and relaxed the whole time.
I was also able to produce powerful movements and effective attacks and counters, but I had to really work at it! I was sweating like crazy and clearly not looking very relaxed or calm. This made me think about what I needed to do to capture more of the skill of my teachers.
That's when it dawned on me that if I really wanted to capture what my teacher was doing I had to actually do LESS. It wasn't what I needed to add, it’s what I needed to take away. All along I had been asking the wrong question. The right question was, what do I need to stop doing? This is nicely captured in the expression of "addition by subtraction."
The common thread between the performances of the guitar legends and the martial arts masters is that they were all working very efficiently. They produced only the muscle actions needed to do what they wanted to do. Extra and wasteful efforts were not to be found. Instead the movements were optimized for maximum effect with minimum input.
Think of the movements of Bruce Lee, a truly amazing martial artist. When you watch footage of his demonstrations he is fluid, relaxed and efficient. When he hit—like with his famous 1-inch punch—he struck with his entire body. That requires very coordinated and efficient movement.
Which brings us to motor learning and neuroplasticity. Your motor system—with all its parts, ranging from muscle to spinal cord to brain—strives to produce efficient movement. This is a useful evolutionary constraint because more efficient means using less energy. And using less energy increases survivability.
Lots of common and natural motor acts are already extremely efficient. Take walking, for example. When you move around you tend to do so in very efficient patterns and when you have learned something, your nervous system seeks to do it better and more efficiently.
In fact, you nervous system is striving to not necessarily do things the way you learned them. Instead you are constantly refining motor output and movement patterns to produce a more effective and efficient outcome. This can be measured as more efficient changes in muscle activity when people do movements. But the changes take place over many days, weeks, months and years.
It takes time, in other words, to do less. To become more efficient. Which brings us to the idea of overall approaches to life. If less really is more from a biological perspective—and I’ve argued above that it is an innate organizing principle—what does that say about interacting with others? I think it says something about how trying too hard can sometimes be detrimental.
We are constantly working against processes that need time to occur and cannot really be rushed. Acquiring skill and success takes time and takes an approach that can involve doing less. A purposeful approach to do less may be the answer.
© E. Paul Zehr (2013)