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When Fighting for Attention Is a Good Thing

Attentional flexibility is something learned from martial arts training.

An important part of the neuroscience of being a human is our so-called "executive function". Controlling our impulses by inhibiting reactions, utilizing working memory capacity to remember something while thinking of something else, and flexible thinking "outside the box" are examples of executive function in action . These are all clearly quite critical for optimal function in just about anything you might do, especially activities that involve the need for focused attention while in danger like martial arts. Our focus here is seeing if you can train to enhance your attention and apply it to other aspects of your life.

In martial arts training, you are forced to exist in the moment with attention on what is happening. Like the punch coming at your chest, the lock at your wrist, or the metal weapon hurtling at your head. These require flexible attention in the moment but also a quick switching of attention before, during, and after a real or simulated attack. Many martial arts traditions describe ways to think of mind and attention. My own practice is heavily influenced by Japanese and Okinawan traditions, which are, in turn, influenced by Zen.

Within the Zen framework there are three relevant martial concepts about mind: the calm and empty "no mind" of mushin ; the unmoved, unperturbable mind of fudoshin ; and, the reflective and aware mind during and after fighting found in zanshin (you can read more about my description of zanshin here if you want) . Over the years I've come to realize it's the focusing experience of these states of mind that is a key and sustaining benefit of my own personal practice of martial arts.

But as a scientist, I also ask, beyond anecdote, what's the evidence? It would be awesome if there were detailed longitudinal studies following folks over years but there's not much available. Most of the data are from cross-sectional studies comparing folks who train in martial arts with those who don't.

Javier Sanchez-Lopez and colleagues in Mexico, Cuba, and Italy studied electroencephalographic potentials during an attention task in martial artists (with more than five years training) in their mid-20s who did judo, taekwondo, or kung-fu. There were differences in visuomotor processing during a target tracking task and, compared with others, the martial arts group had more controlled reactions with better planning. They suggest that martial arts training led to enhanced "neural flexibility" to allow better and more useful adaptation of control. A later study from Mexico led by Sanchez-Lopez and some of the prior authors again studied brain regions in martial artists during an attention tracking task and found improved efficacy in allocation of attention that would be relevant for success in combat.

Ashleigh Johnstone and Paloma Mari-Beffa in the UK evaluated cognitive control and the effect of martial arts training (for at least 2 years) on attentional networks in young (early 20s) adults who practiced traditions including karate, taekwondo, kickboxing, jujitsu, Tai Chi, judo, Muay Thai, and kung fu. Those trained in martial arts had improved and more flexible attentional control that was revealed in a differentially cued target test. The strongest benefit of martial arts training was in the least predictable condition and this was correlated with declared years of training. The conclusion reached was that training allowed a sustained level of vigilance that afforded more accurate and flexible responses to unpredictable scenarios.

There are also studies on martial arts using tools like those found in the simulated sword art of kendo. Hironobu Fujiwara and colleagues from Japan used fMRI to study brain activity related to motivation during an attention task in experienced kendo practitioners (all were black belt holders with at least 10 years of training) . Compared to age-matched non-martial artists, network integrity was reduced at rest and higher during the attentional loading challenge. It was concluded that martial arts training helped create a more "efficient attentional processing." These scientists linked these concepts back to the Zen mental states of mushin and fudoshin mentioned above and suggest this as evidence of expression of the integrity of mind-body interaction that occurs in sustained martial arts training.

Taken in sum the data support that martial arts training leads to a more efficient and flexibly responsive "agile mind" that may have correlates with concepts found in meditative traditions like Zen. This overall approach resonates strongly with my experiences over many years of training and fits with my life motto as a scientist and martial artist articulated almost four centuries ago by the 16th-century Japanese sword master Miyamoto Musashi (1576-1643):

"The true science of martial arts means practicing them in such a way that they will be useful at any time, and to teach them in such a way that they will be useful in all things."

Some of this is likely directly applicable to other sports and activities that also tap into similar experiences, even if they are not described in this way. The key takeaway is to be active, mentally and physically, and to do things. Oh yes, and, of course, the key to all of this, as with so many things, is practice, practice, practice...

(c) E. Paul Zehr (2019)