Monday, June 3, 2013

“Can you make mushin a habit?”

Question Everything?
by Jaredd Wilson

Can you make mushin a habit?

And when there is an opportunity, I do not hit.  It hits all by itself.
                                                                                    -Bruce Lee, Enter the Dragon

Kanji for mushin "no mind"
        Mushin is a state of mind characterized by a lack of conscious thought.  In many Japanese martial arts and martial ways this is a high-end goal to achieve.  There is a lot written on what mushin is, and how to best achieve it.  I wrote on mushin in a previous article and you can check it out if you want more information.  However, it can only really be experienced.  I’ve felt this a couple of times and it amazed me.  It was only in memory that I knew what happened or what I did.  What sparked this article was actually an article on another website .  Their website is one of my favorite perusing sites, and they put up new articles every couple of days.  What this particular article was about was the science behind habit formation. 
        MIT started doing studies in the 1990’s on mice to find out the purpose of a small section of the brain that is part of the brain called the basal ganglia.  Before this, the only thing we knew was that it was probably involved with Parkinson's Disease.  Basically, what the study did was hook up little electrodes to the brains of mice and put them through a maze.  The first time the mice went through the maze the basal ganglia showed almost no activity. The activity was centered in the cerebral cortex, the thinking part of the brain.  And this makes sense.  The mice had to learn the maze.  They were busy exploring, sniffing, scratching, doing micey things.  As they repeated the process over and over, the activity in the brain shifted from the cerebral cortex to the basal ganglia.  This meant the mice weren’t thinking about the maze.  It had been downloaded to the basal ganglia.  Through repeated experience, their mind had made a habit of remembering the maze.  The mice had created a routine set of physical actions.  They had created a habit.
The Basal Ganglia is a combination of parts deep inside the brain
        To make things even more habitual the experimenter produced a clicking sound right before the mice went through the maze.  This became a cue.  There was also a reward of chocolate at the end of the maze.  What their further research shows is that this cue and reward were required to for habit formation.  The cue triggers the basal ganglia to produce a response, i.e. remembering the maze pattern, in expectation of getting the reward, the chocolate.  It also showed that once a habit was formed it was permanent.  However, it could be overridden with other habits.
        So what does this have to do with martial arts?  It is exactly how we learn and prepare for combat.  At first we need to learn our technique.  It takes observation, thought, processing, and trail and error.  We are using the cerebral cortex part of the brain, our thinking part.  Eventually we have repeatedly practiced the technique until the response becomes habitual.   Our brain dumps the information into the basal ganglia where it becomes a permanent habit.  We even have sensory clues; a specific attack to promote a specific response.  When someone punches me in the face, I shift my body.  If we think of the appropriate response, it will take to long and we get a bloody nose.  If we react out of habit, we can do so quicker.  The reward is often a self induced one.  Not getting punched is pretty good, but the satisfaction of performing a technique correctly is the reward.
        Our goal as martial artist is to practice often enough and with enough variation that all our techniques become “basal ganglia” responses.  This means that we are trying do all of this without thinking.  When you can respond without though you are experiencing mushin.  Any activity that has a cue, a heavily practiced response, and a reward can become habitual.  Entering mushin is not exclusive to martial artist, it is just one of their goals.  Anything done with enough repetition can produce a mushin/basal ganglia effect.

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