Miyamoto Musashi and Vision In Martial Arts

There's more to martial arts than meets the eye.

Posted Jun 17, 2015

Whether we say vision, sight, perception or the mind’s eye, our experience of the world is heavily influenced by what we see. In his famous opus on philosophy, psychology and strategy for martial arts and life, 16th Century Japanese sword master Miyamoto Musashi (1576-1643) described the gaze of the martial artist to be critical in order to see the world properly.

The proper gaze needs to be an unfocused attention that allows reaction to everything, a readiness for anything while focusing on nothing specifically. Musashi wrote that one must “perceive that which cannot be seen with the eye.” Although he may not have conceived of it this way, Musashi’s words do an excellent job of separating visual information (seeing with the eye) from conscious awareness (perception).

Musashi wrote that the eye for simply observing things is naturally strong but that the eye for seeing things for what they are is naturally weak. He further cautioned to see “distant things as if they are close” and close things “as if they are distant” to avoid distraction. He urges that “you cannot master this ability quickly…use this gaze in everyday life and not vary it…”

I have read whatever I could find about the life of Miyamoto Musashi, including rereading numerous translations of his gorgeous treatise “Go Rin No Sho”—The Book of 5 Rings. In fact, in the late 1990s I visited the Reigando caves, near Kumamoto on the island of Kyushi in Japan. It was in Reigando that Musashi, centuries earlier, sat and wrote his thoughts on strategy and combat in contemplation near the end of his life

Musashi referred extensively to training vison and perception through martial arts, but now there is modern evidence in experimental psychology to support his assertions and show that visual abilities can be enhanced with such training. In this context, enhance means protecting against the normal decrements in dynamic visual acuity that occurs as we age. Dynamic visual acuity is simply a term for the ability we have to discriminate details about an object (in the martial context think fist, foot, or sword) when there is motion between the observer and the object. This fits the bill perfectly when it comes to martial arts where opponents are usually in motion constantly relative to each other.

Writing in the journal “Attention and Perceptual Psychophysics”, Monica Muinos and Soledad Ballesteros from the Department of Basic Psychology in Madrid, Spain wanted to know if sports training that relied heavily on dynamic visual acuity could interfere with the normal decline in this ability. Using a tracking task where the participants had to rapidly determine the direction and characteristics of object motion, they studied young (less than 30 years) and older (more than 60 years) adults who either had no sporting background or who had training in judo or karate. Not surprisingly, martial arts athletes—both judo and karate—had better dynamic visual acuity scores than non-athletes. This result supports the idea that martial arts training may enhance dynamic visual acuity.

But that’s for comparison with just athletes versus untrained, what about the decline that normally occurs in aging? The most interesting outcome in the study of Muinos and Ballesteros was that older judo and karate athletes significantly outperformed their non-athlete counterparts. This suggests that the martial arts training offset—or protected against—the normal decline in dynamic visual acuity that is typical of again.

The mechanisms underlying such neuroplastic modulation are not fully known and likely span multiple brain regions. Yet, this is still compelling evidence that “use it or lose it” applies as well to visual perception as it does to the strength of your arms and legs. This also serves to support Musashi’s assertion, captured in my all-time favorite quote from “Go Rin No Sho” below, that true mastery of a skillset should transfer to other activities:

“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.”

When it comes to vision in martial arts, hopefully such training can help us become more discerning and perceptive in the rest of our daily activities too.

© E. Paul Zehr (2015)