Types of movement - The science behind the art
A conversation recently got me to thinking about the different categories of movement and how we should understand them all. At least it got me to thinking that if I was going to expand on how to make it easier for people to learn martial arts we should start by understanding the different categories of movement. The rest will follow on from there.
Basically there are three types of movement. Movements that we choose to make, movements that happen regardless of our choice, and movements that fall somewhere in between the two. We’ll look at them one at a time and hopefully I’ll manage to explain why it is that understanding them makes us better at what we do.
Category 1 – Conscious Movement
This is the one we are all familiar with. We decide what we want to happen and we (to quote Captain Jean-Luc Picard) make it so. Opening a door, switching on a light, the list is endless. These movements have a tendency to be relatively simple as keeping conscious track of complex movements is not easy. If you have ever watched a baby grow up and learn to move you could argue that even these simple actions are combinations of other internalised actions. Moving our hand to pick up a cup uses more muscles than I can bear to count.
Category 2 – Unconscious Movement
This is where things start to get interesting. Humans, like many other animals, have a fascinating and complex neural structure. Our sensory nerves do not pass directly to our brain, but synapse at the Spinal Cord. This leads to a very clever phenomenon; the Reflex Arc. Basically what happens is thus. A sensory nerve picks up a signal, this signal travels the length of the nerve and then hits the spinal cord where it is transmitted to the brain, we then experience the sensation. However this is not all that happens. When the nerve impulse hits the spinal cord it also triggers a motor nerve impulse.
We move before we know we need to move.
In evolutionary terms this gives us a massive advantage. We automatically pull away from potentially harmful events without having to make a conscious decision that yes the event is potentially harmful and yes we should probably pull away. As martial artists we should understand this phenomenon and how to manipulate it in others.
Tapping the tendon underneath your kneecap and watching your leg jerk upwards is a fine example of reflex action.
Category 3 – The Internalised Movement
If we repeat a movement enough our body remembers it. At least that is how it seems. In actual fact our cerebellum remembers it for us so the bit of our brain we live in doesn’t have to. This allows us to perform increasingly complex movements. Our body carries out the simple action automatically and we can then add a new layer of complexity to it. Hopefully we then internalise that and so on… We call these internalised actions Motor Pathways (though there are many other fine terms, muscle memory, physical intelligence are just two I have come across) and for convenience we divide them into Fine and Gross. Fine Motor Pathways involve the small muscles of the hand (there are also graphomotor pathways but as these are all about writing we can safely ignore them) and enable us to play the piano, the violin, to type at a computer keyboard, to roll a cigarette whilst driving (That is a bad thing on so many levels I probably shouldn’t have written it). Gross Motor Pathways enable us to do bigger tasks using our limbs and body.
Category three movements fall in between the first two categories because we can choose to initiate them, but the fine detail of the movement is automatic. This is why I spent three months standing in a dojo punching the air whilst my Instructor corrected me. I didn’t enjoy it, and now I wonder if it was worthwhile, but it gave me the ability to perform a near perfect Shotokan punch without any conscious thought and at the time that was my biggest goal in life. However it should be stressed that these movements are not reflexes. They are simply internalised actions. We need to learn them so our cerebellum can remember them. It is much like writing on stone with your finger. Do it once and you won’t see anything. Do it a million times in the same way and you wear a channel in the stone. The more you practice the simple actions the less you’ll have to think about them when you want to use them. This is why every class I run has a brief spell of simply stepping forwards and backwards changing through different guards. It is why every effective self protection system is based on a foundation of default actions. It is worth bearing in mind that your brain is capable of internalising anything and everything you want, if you do it enough. The limit is your body, and your motivation.
My next article will look at how we can utilise some of this knowledge in our Martial Arts training.