We can’t really look at movement skills without talking about how movement complexity and capacity is handled by the brain and nervous system. It is our brains that give rise to our ability to move in complex ways and also our brains that allow us to retain good movement habits once they are learned. Indeed, some people theorize that movement diversity is the reason for humans developing such large and complex brains.
In the Animal kingdom we are not the best sprinters, not the best climbers and not the best swimmers. But we can do all of those things to a general level of ability, whereas a cheetah can’t swim, nor dolphin climb a tree. Our ability to utilize a wide variety of motions to complete complex tasks is what make us unique in the animal kingdom, we represent the ultimate ‘generalist’ and this is perhaps why our organism has been such a success in adapting to the wide variety of environments found on earth. This preference towards general movement ability, and the unique way in which our brains are wired to acquire new movements, can be taken advantage of by the methods burn in ‘burn in’ high quality movements.
There are a few different ways in which we learn skill. Some of the skills we learn are short lived, we only require them to solve a specific problem, and some remaining with us for life. For example, when you learn how to ride a bike or swim your body and mind will usually remember this for life. Even after 10 years without touching a bike or getting in the pool, you will still be able to ride or go for a swim. With many other physical endeavours this is not the case. Often it is the skills which either are innately useful, those which are deemed life preserving or those where unconscious competence is obtained that will remain with the person. Riding a bike is an excellent example where, once learned you no longer have to ‘think’ about how to balance, turn the peddles or direct the bike around a corner.
Neuroscientists at the University of Aberdeen have identified a key nerve cell that controls the formation of motor skills, such as cycling or eating with utensils.
They discovered that one particular type of nerve cell –the so called molecular layer interneuron - acts as a "gatekeeper", controlling the electrical signals that leave the cerebellum. Molecular layer interneurons transform the electrical signals into a language that can be laid down as a memory in other parts of the brain.
Dr Peer Wulff, who led the research in Aberdeen together with Prof. Bill Wisden at the University's Institute of Medical Sciences, said: "What we were interested in was finding out how memories are encoded in the brain. We found that there is a cell which structures the signal output from the cerebellum into a particular code that is engraved as memory for a newly learned motor skill. "
It could pave the way for advancements in prosthetic devices to mimic normal brain functions, which could benefit those who have suffered brain disorders, such as a stroke or multiple sclerosis.
Excerpt from Aberdeen University News Jul 2009
I propose that the correct practice of the General 'Attributes', over time, will build habitual ‘good movement’ in the individual provided that unconscious competence is reached. In fact as a coach, often when showing a student what they are doing wrong I will find it difficult to force my body to move incorrectly. The qualities have become ingrained and the body moves that way with no thought.
Similarly it is common for those who have trained the martial arts to a level of unconscious competence to be able to recall patterns of movement they may have not trained for 20 years with little trouble. This is another marker of an ingrained movement skill.
Serge Augier, a Taoist Arts Adept and Lineage holder once said to me
“The ease with which you pick up new, complex movements, is directly related to your level of internal development”
A very interesting statement and one that I saw bore out with my own practice. As my method became better, so did my ability to absorb and perform movements I had never seen before more quickly.
Creating general movement quality and habits.
The first question we should ask is, how is the ability to recall a martial form or movement set actually useful to us? It seems like something very specific. But the wider picture is much greater than simply preserving a traditional form or adherence to a martial syllabus.
The road from unconscious incompetence > unconscious competence is one that ingrains a certain type of moving for the Martial artist. Initially we will be moving in a way that is at odds with itself, agonist and antagonist muscles will not be in harmony and aches and pains will result after strenuous training sessions. But over time we begin to find the ‘sweet spot’ in every movement, where there is a balance between the various tissue of the body and alignments of the frame.
This balance represents the conscious competence phase and is already a very useful position to be in. But it is only when we move past this and into the practices where movement is unconsciously balanced and perfect that the real work of ingraining a higher general movement quality begins.
During this final phase people will talk of the practice becoming like a ‘moving meditation’ or entering the Flow State because the mind is no longer pre-occupied with forcing the body into unfamiliar or demanding positions.
Taxing your Brain.
Relating this back to the brain and nervous system, the complex movements in systems like the Chinese BaGua or Brazilian Capoeira are renowned among their adepts. In methods like Ba Gua there are twisting and spiralling motions that alter course dramatically as they weave their way through the forms. In Tai Chi we see movements that eb and flow in circular and wave like patterns, in Capoeira we see dynamic and acrobatic flips and inversions. In all of these arts the motions are not easy, and the high level of complexity taxes the brain and forces it to begin to adapt.
As the beginner struggles valiantly through these hard methods, their brain will be forming new pathways and connections to attempt to make the movement easier. The more we train the movement and struggle with it, the more the brain will try to strengthen these connections.
To begin with the connections are like an electrical wire with very little insulation around it, as signal travels down the wire, some of the information is lost. But the more you train, the more the body lays insulation around this wire (a substance called Myelin) and the stronger the signal becomes. Soon the requirement of the movement is clear and very easy for the brain to manage and the movements become automatic. The once unnatural movement, although still unusual and complex, becomes natural, the practitioner has obtained the attribute.
The brains ability to recognize and ingrain complex movement patterns will ultimately mean that simple movement patterns are far more refined and easier for the brain to recognize and perform. The layering of complex skills over time will result in the individual having a far more refined attribute and this can be seen when the person is walking, running, sitting or trying new methods. They have a ’Quality’ to their movement even if it is new to them.