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Old 10-08-2008, 11:27 AM   #4
C. David Henderson
Location: Santa Fe New Mexico
Join Date: Sep 2008
Posts: 606
Re: Mirror Neurons and Aikido Training


I don't know that learning Aikido its different in kind from the examples you list, but Aikido and other martial arts training does seem to exploit this kind of learning in a systematic fashion: consider, for example the ability to "steal technique" as reflecting a training effect on the mirror neurons. And then maybe acquiring this ability is important to the development of the martial artist for reasons other than an inexplicable cultural idiosyncracy...

I glean from the material I cited that mirror neurons get triggered by observing movements you have trained and when perceiving other people. Mirror neurons are important in both learning by mimicry and in acquiring language (ever hear that Aikido is a language, with a grammar?) and problems with this system may be involved in autism.

It shouldn't be surprising that a brain mechanism essential to social interaction (the other person perception) is also essential to learning skills through social interaction. [It also could be a percursor to self recognition, which behavioral scientists have called a behavioral "Rubicon" crossed only by a few other mammal and bird species.]

The practical knowledge we have of complex tasks and the "hunches" we entertain about people's acts or intentions may thus simply be different in KIND than conceptual knowledge, but still a kind of knowing and not a poor cousin to knowledge:

I know how to take ukemi (to the extent I do), in that when I am really taking it I don't think about it. My body knows.

My background understanding about the process of skill learning is that it involves a process of extracting the conscious mind over time from the details of the ongoing performance. This may be the result of, to borrow your wonderful metaphor, "polishing."

My thoughts in terms of Aikido stem from trying to imagine what is happening when two people interact in a martial encounter -- real or stylized.

When I am practicing as uke or nage, my partner's ("stylized") performance may trigger the same type of neurological process that occurs when a dancer observes a movement she has trained, including involvement and firing of mirror neurons. My body knows what my partner is doing literally as though I were doing it. Been there, done that sort of thing.

In this sense I might say I directly experience both the technique and the receiving of the technique during performance of either role. My partner too.

We are interacting, moreover, both "kinesthectically" and through pervasive touch, as when I "feel" his or her center.

Looking at it this way makes me appreciate that there probably exist particular neurological bases that underlie a good deal of the "phenomenology" of martial-arts talk.

You asked: 'I am now reading this question as we need "hands on" training because our mirror systems cannot fully process what is going on kinesthetically. Is that what you meant? If yes, it's easier for me to agree.' Well, I'm not sure; so I'm content to leave your framing as the operative statement for now.

About the polishing metaphor -- I liked this phrase because it "mirrors" the kind of analog thinking behind the label "mirror neurons" to begin with, and then connects that analogy to a classic aphorism associated with Zen and the martial arts. Cool, if you ask me (and you kind of did...).


Thanks for your thoughts. This idea is something else I was speculating about, though I don't think I could have framed it as well:

"if by mirror neurons we are suggesting vicarious learning leading to possible skill acquisition, there may be some validity provided the observer internally mentally associates with the external model. Neuroplasticity is best affected by voluntary mental rehearsal as if actually doing the task, not just observing it. Well trained athletes use this strategy to see-do."

This line of thought also suggests to me mirror neurons may be involved when an athlete or martial artist "rehearses" a performance in her mind, in much the same way we 'subvocalize" when we think about saying something.


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