What If Everybody Really Was Kung Fu Fighting?

Part 2: Bruce Lee and the brain.

Posted Oct 31, 2020

In the summer of 1973, Enter the Dragon premiered and rocketed to box office and critical success a month after its star, the “Little Dragon” himself, had tragically perished. Bruce Lee (1940-1973) remains one of the most recognized martial artists in history. He was a popular cultural phenom and a rare icon who possessed both style as an actor and innovator and incredible substance as an authentic martial artist and philosopher. Bruce Lee thought deeply about everything, and especially about innovation in whole body and brain training in martial arts. His ways of moving translated to elegance rooted in a strong and powerful nervous system.


Bruce Lee was the living embodiment of the integrated nervous system that Nobel Laureate Sir Charles S. Sherrington (1857-1952) articulated when he wrote: “…All parts of the nervous system are connected and no part of it is probably ever capable of reaction without affecting and being affected by various other parts…” Sherrington laid the groundwork for neuron theory, the synapse, and mechanisms for the reflex-arc function. His work established nervous system connections that allow the brain and body to work in unison and when properly engaged, the integration of information works in synchronicity.

Holistic health modalities have been growing over the years due to their all-encompassing benefits to the body, brain, and mind. In the previous post, the physiological benefits of martial arts were discussed but these would not be possible without the motor commands and relay with the brain. Everyone could likely benefit from regular martial arts practice, especially when considering effects on the body and physiology, but what about benefits in the brain?

Humans have a great capacity for emotion, reasoning, and memory but must nourish our bodies and brains to ensure optimal health throughout the lifespan. Genetics, environment, and predispositions can cause disease that leads to chronic health and neurological conditions, and the rate of these have become more prevalent in recent years. Healthy societies require the promotion of wellness in all communities.

Exercise, it’s been said, is the best medicine and can be acquired freely. The Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology recommends at least 150 minutes of regular to vigorous activity per week to decrease the risk of disease development by 30%. While exercise helps with physiological aspects of healing, its benefits go beyond as well. Brain health requires proper regulation of sleep, nutrition, and exercise that ultimately allow for enhancement of function. Physical activities such as mind-body exercises release factors that improve health such as neurotransmitters and hormones. Neurotransmitter and neuromodulator regulation and mood stabilization occur with regular exercise leading to a better balance of energy.

Some examples of neurotransmitters are serotonin (sleep-wake molecule), dopamine (motivation), and brain-derived neurotrophic factor. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor is a protein that is important for neuroplasticity through the formation of synapses, growth, and neurogenesis in the nervous system.  Other elements include vascular endothelial growth factor and insulin-like growth factor that are critical for proper nervous system development and prevention of neurological conditions. The benefits of exercise can be used to help with mental health conditions along with preventative mechanism for chronic conditions. A “pre-habilitation” mindset is key to minimizing effects of disease on longevity.

How do martial arts affect the brain? The intricate movements are centered around rhythmic, repetitive motions that stimulate learning and memory. “Hard” martial arts such as karate have quick reaction times and fluid sequences allowing for whole-body integration and formation of strengthened circuits in the brain. Expert practitioners have better execution of movements because of improved primary motor cortex function in comparison to controls. The brains of elite karate athletes with over 10 years of training showed increased volume of white and grey matter. This pattern corresponds to an increase in neuronal branching of myelinated (white) axons as well as an increase in cell bodies (grey), which can be attributed to motor learning and adaptive plasticity from martial arts training. There can be a deterioration of cognition as a function of aging, and the evaluation of karate shows the benefits of regular practice. Aerobic karate training over five and ten months allowed white and grey matter to increase significantly in comparison to stretching. “Hard” martial arts are effective in fostering cognitive brain health.

In addition to documented effects that long-term practices of martial arts training has on brain health, there is emerging use of traditional practices as a rehabilitation tool for older adults and individuals with chronic conditions. Holistic whole body and brain movements allow for the integrated use of the body and these motions translate to changes in brain activity. Chronic conditions such as mood disorders (for example anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder) and neurological conditions (especially Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease) are associated with imbalances to chemicals, such as dopamine and acetylcholine, in the brain that cause alterations to behaviours and daily function. Regular martial arts exercise practices are one of the best ways to reshape the brain through activation of cortical regions and the release of neurotransmitters that cultivate “feel good” sensations. There are no cures for neurodegenerative diseases, therefore slowing the rate of decline is imperative for individuals with these conditions. Exercise is an excellent way to move the body and improve memory with rhythmic patterns like those seen in karate and other martial arts practices.

Many martial arts employ training methods of choreographed movement forms that have specific uses, which allow practitioners to memorize and perfect the positions. Repetitive motions cause the integration of these sequences into people's brains, inevitably generating new connections in the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). Activity-dependent plasticity in the nervous system can be elicited from exercise and is the foundation of learning and the formation of new memories. Memory and the synaptic structure that underpins it are degraded in neurological conditions. Enriched environments that encourage physical activity, mental stimulation through learning and social interactions could counteract the decline and promote increased neurotransmitter release.

The coordination between synchronized breathing and movements is a focus in many mind-body exercises, where the breath revitalizes the body. Nasal breathing utilizes the olfactory system and there is coordination to brain networks (such as the amygdala and hippocampus) related to emotion and memory. Regulation of breathing benefits body and brain connections while allowing the practitioner to think more clearly and calmly. The breath can be used to dive deeper into postures and allows you to feel more energized after exercise instead of drained.

When learning martial arts, it is readily apparent that all parts of the nervous system are (or hopefully will be) working in conjunction. The movements begin with the eyes and looking in the direction that you want your body to move, then the coordination of the limbs and core. Something that stuck with one author (HM) in their own training was when her sensei (and supervisor) mentioned that while learning, you want to practice at a slower pace but still maintain the alignment and timing of the positions. Like a dance in slow motion, this perspective on learning alters previous assumptions of what martial arts truly are.

From the exterior, martial arts are often depicted for the hard, ballistic forms seen in the movies, such as the ones that Bruce Lee starred in and produced. However, the world of martial arts has more to do with graceful acquisition of techniques and functional movements through the coordination of the body, brain, and breath. With practice, reaction time and interlimb coordination improve, while the inner workings can find more peace and confidence. Bodies and brains work in coordination to strengthen the intricate connections that exist within the nervous system—from the central roots of the brain and spinal cord, out to the martially moving limbs. Although with us ever so briefly, Bruce Lee left a legacy for how someone with dedication and training could build a strong physique, an agile brain and could impact so many people around the world. Dedication and commitment are key.

The next step is into the mind, an arena in which Bruce Lee also found home. Mindfulness can be embedded into holistic martial arts practices where experienced practitioners can reach deep connections of the body, brain, and mind. As Bruce Lee admonishes a protégé in “Enter the Dragon”: Don't think! Feel. It is like a finger pointing a way to the moon. Don't concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory.”

Part 3 “From the Shaolin Monastery to the Modern Mind,” explores the psychological impacts of martial arts training. You can also check out Part 1: Martial Arts and Your Body!

© E. Paul Zehr (2020).

Note: This post was a collaboration between Hajer Mustafa, a graduate trainee in the Rehabilitation Neuroscience Laboratory at the University of Victoria, and E. Paul Zehr.