Using mirror neurons to learn Taijiquan

by Richard Johnson on 2015/07/21

Richard JohnsonShifu Chen Zhonghua often emphasizes how to learn Taijiquan. This web site has a great article called 6 Methods of Learning Tai Chi. (Read this if you hav not already.) It expands and elaborates on Grandmaster Hong’s Look, Listen, Ask, practice method.

I am working on a PhD in Exercise Science – Sports Biomechanics at Auburn University. A related field that I have also studied is motor control.  In motor control research, I found the neurological basis for this method of learning.

There are neurological mechanisms called mirror neurons. The basic premise is when we see a person do something, mirror neurons fire off in our brain duplicating the pattern in the nervous system required to copy the movement. It is not a perfect copy at first, but with repeated viewing of the action, our brains and nervous system do a really good job of copying the movement.

We see this in infants, children, and adults. Infant children often take an interest in their parents eating, they frequently watch very intently. Their attention is so keen that their mouths involuntarily mimic the chewing action. Neurologists think that most physical actions and facial expressions are learned through the mirror neuron mechanism. This mechanism of learning is never lost during a lifetime.

154460-158306Most of us have a layer of cultural baggage that makes this method of learning difficult. We have been taught that we need to “understand” things in the cognitive centers of our brains before we can do them. I have even heard Taijiquan called “the thinking man’s martial art”. It may be disconcerting to just watch and bypass the conscious thinking parts of our brain.

Which method is “better” depends on your goals. If you want to know and understand taijiquan, stimulate the cognitive centers by thinking about and analyzing the movements of Taijiquan. However, if you want to be able to do taijiquan, then stimulate the mirror neurons in the motor learning centers. If you want to be able to do both, you have to firmly entrain the motor control centers until they are habituated, then you can educate the cognitive centers.

Researchers found that our brains do not differentiate between actions witnessed in person or through video recordings. When being taught in-person, this is an important learning method. However, this is a really valuable learning method to use with video recordings. Because of the ability to slow down and repeat what we are seeing, this is where we need most to apply the “Look” aspect of learning.

When we watch a video with the sound on, we watch what is being said. When we watch with the sound off, we watch what is being done. Both are valuable. The cognitive centers in our brain learn from what is being said, but the motor control centers in our brains learn best by watching what is being done and without verbal stimulation. You can watch a video to listen and get the gist of what is being said. Just avoid focusing on and analyzing the verbal explanations or repeatedly listening.

We’ve all seen students learning in-person in the background of videos trying to mimic Shifu Chen movements as he demonstrates, myself included. Usually, they fail to come even close. While the impulse to copy is right, it is the wrong thing to do to learn. When you watch a video, and especially in-person, only watch. Avoid trying to imitate the movements while you’re watching. If you try to imitate movement while watching, you will engage old, established motor pathways and neural patterns, which usually perform the movement incorrectly.

To engage the correct neural pathways, after watching, remember what it felt like as you watched. Move slowly at first. Speed will come with repetition.

Also, avoid self-talk, verbal cues and analysis of the actions. These corrupt the neural copy of the movement you are creating in your brain. All of that can be done after you learn the movements.

Instead, just watch and give the rest of your brain a rest. Then, watch, re-watch, and re-re-watch and so on until you can picture the movement in your mind, and you can feel the movement in you without actually doing it. Then, try to do it. This will give you your best chance of building correct new neural pathways.

Practice it a little bit, until you think you have it right. Then, do an appropriate two-man exercise that uses the action. Ideally, a few adjustments should help fine tune the correct neural pathway. If it just doesn’t work, go back to watching. It can take time to build neural pathways. You may literally be growing new nerves and neural connections, but often minor changes can only take a day or two.

Once you think you are successful in two-man drills, you need to strengthen the neural connections and pathway by repetition. Drills, circles, and push hands are all important, but also make sure you update every occurrence of that action in your form, which can number in the dozen or even hundreds.

This may sound like I am advocating waiting until you can do everything in taijiquan perfectly before doing lots of repetitions. But, the opposite is true. You need a foundation upon which to build your taijiquan without which you cannot add more sophisticated and detailed movements. Your body/mind loves efficiency, and taijiquan is supremely efficient. If you give the body/mind a choice between an old, familiar, but inefficient habit and a new more efficient habit and time to try out both ways, it will usually go with the more efficient method. This will gradually and sometimes drastically improve your taijiquan.

Enjoy!

 

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Hugo Ramiro July 21, 2015 at 8:22 am

Very useful article, thanks Richard! Getting this topic described through yet another angle is essential since it is too easy to choose an easier learning method that will only lead us astray.

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Paddy Hanratty July 21, 2015 at 9:53 am

Thanks very much for this article. I think it will be a great help especially for people, like myself,with a tendency to neglect foundation exercises.

Reply

Allan Haddad July 22, 2015 at 10:28 am

Very helpful article as it applies to learning. Even more revealing – for me – is the cited article on the 6 methods of learning tai chi. It doesn’t amaze me anymore that there is so much rich information on this website that keeps bubbling up here and there.

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admin July 23, 2015 at 6:13 pm

From Facebook:

Boyd Bailey Armchair Taijiquan Rocks smile emoticon
July 21 at 8:17pm · Like · 2
Hugo Ramiro ha
July 21 at 8:34pm · Like
Hugo Ramiro “The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance – it is the illusion of knowledge” (Daniel Boorstin)
July 21 at 9:18pm · Like · 6
John Upshaw Who does armchair taijiquan? To me armchair taiji is spending more time discussing than practicing.. I think discussion is important when backed by eating bitter…my thoughts
July 21 at 10:52pm · Like · 4
Hugo Ramiro Yah, armchair taiji is easy, we can derive pleasure from the pretense of understanding, I personally derive lots of pleasure from thinking I understand…however, the real test is 2. Can i perform real actions, and 1. Am I willing to endure the unpleasant feelings that come from real learning?
July 21 at 11:01pm · Like · 7
Boyd Bailey TOUGHCROWD
July 22 at 3:03am · Like · 2
John Upshaw Taiji addicts…speaking for myself…
July 22 at 3:05am · Like · 1
Bruce Schaub ‘ again it is very difficult to learn, because your mind reverses actions… when I ‘ don’t move ‘, and you believe I moved , how can you copy me? You will copy the wrong move ‘ — CZH
July 22 at 2:13pm · Like · 6
Kelvin Ho Watch and copy, repeat the process until the teacher says you get it, then think what is actually done, how it is done, how to do more of it in a different way, and how to do the same thing more efficiently.
July 22 at 3:27pm · Edited · Like · 5
John Upshaw I like Richard’s statement on “If you want to know and understand taiji, stimulate the cognitive centers by thinking about and analyzing the movements of Taijiquan. If you want to be able to do taiji, then stimulate the motor learning centers with the mirror neurons. If you want to be able to do both, you have to firmly entrain the motor control centers until they are habituated (a long time), then you can educate the cognitive centers.” It highlights the importance of “physical understanding”, which is obtained through repeated foundations and yilu. During the physical duplication of these patterns, glial cells form over the neuropathway that is repeatedly being used over a long period of time as Richard mentioned. It is like a path. When that path is traveled frequently it becomes more easily traveled…now pave it with asphalt, that is the function of the glial cells…through practice…
July 22 at 4:08pm · Like · 5
Pawel Müller I think this article has an essential truth, which is, that you should more and think less. That’s also what Master Chen keeps repeating. He also says that we should analyze, but only after we practiced something, so that there’s actually something we can analyze.
I doubt very much though, that just watching (especially videos only) will get you far in Taiji since what’s observable is not what actually happens. You can observe it if you reached a high level of skill, but you can if you’re starting. So without a teacher who’s correcting you until you understand the method so that you can practice on your own is inevitable. Even when the method is understood correction from someone better are needed.
As Hugo Ramiro said: there are two very simple tests which are important and resolve the question if you actually got the skill.
… still working on it

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pingwei July 24, 2015 at 8:24 am

There are different stages of learning Tai Chi (or learning anything). First is imitation. I believe Richard’s article emphasizes the importance of observation. To assure you copy the move correctly, you must watch closely, again and again, turn off any thoughts, especially those thoughts that you try to compare what you experienced before. We often heard people comment that “Oh, this is just like wing chun”, or jujitsu, or whatever. With these kind of thoughts, the person will never have a chance to learn PM.

Great article, Richard. Thanks for sharing your research.

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aurora borealis February 5, 2019 at 3:18 am

“The basic premise is when we see a person do something, mirror neurons fire off in our brain duplicating the pattern in the nervous system required to copy the movement”
Can you prove such statement ? Does it mean when we watch people moving, that these neurons are active in our brains ?

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