Implicit Motor Learning – Experimenting with the dual and multi-task method

20.04.18

I am experimenting using the dual task method of implicit learning, but with a task that I am already familiar with.  I am crossing the length of my 15m slackline while looking straight ahead and counting backwards from 50 or more, alternating between three languages: English, French and Finnish in this way – “fifty, quarante-neuf, neljäkymmentäkahdeksan, forty seven, quarante-six, neljäkymmentäviisi”, and so on.  So far, the effect is that I walk slower, but much more precisely and smoothly, and instead of struggling with the physical task, I distract myself by struggling with switching between languages.  What’s also interesting in this particular case is that I have moments where I am unsure of what language I have spoken in (I am counting out loud), and it is as if my brain simply recognises that it is the correct number in the sequence, rather than any acknowledgement of how that number is encoded.

The parts that I struggle with the most provide the greatest distraction, and would therefore seem more effective in maintaining the primary task unconsciously.  As it is a skill I have already acquired, I believe that implicit learning could possibly help change whether we operate consciously or not, or at least improve or maintain an old skill on a subconscious level.

My experiments today are actually multi-tasking, as counting backwards in English is a secondary task, but counting backwards in a foreign language alone is itself a dual task, so combining multiples languages in reverse order is enough to be difficult while just sitting, let alone when walking a slackline.  But this is the key point, we would expect poorer performance through multi-tasking, but in this instance the opposite seems to be true.

Multi-tasking was able to take me out of any thoughts of falling, which is a good example of how the advice “don’t look down” can be successfully applies in a practical situation.  We seem to understand that we can overcome fear with distraction, but the difficulty usually lies in finding and implementing that distraction.

As we advance in our practice of multi-tasking we adapt as with any training, but with the added benefits that come from doing so implicitly, and in the same way that load and exercise complexity can be and must be adjusted in order to keep progressing, the difficulty of dual or multi-tasks can also be increased to improve the primary physical skill.

The variety of avenues to explore is immense, because not only can we pair a physical primary task with a mental secondary one, we can choose any number of different combinations.  The multi-language counting or speaking game was something I already played on its own, and simply borrowed for this experiment.  In the future I would like to try different games using pre-acquired skills while attempting to disrupt my normal train of thought or non-thought as I carry them out.  Improvised word association, poetry and story-telling is something I wanted to do already as a means to break through mental barriers that result from, and in over thinking, which seems like it will be well-suited to dual and multi tasking.  Such an approach to increasing the cognitive complexity of tasks seems little if at all explored outside of circus arts and novelty acts, and my hope is that my own examples may provide insights or inspiration for others who are interested in exploring these relatively uncharted waters.

The possibility of being able to re-learn or regulate an already attained skill to a subconscious level is something that both professional athletes, dancers and performers could benefit from, as well as amateurs, people involved in physical jobs and activities, and patients undergoing rehabilitation.

Multi-tasking feels mentally draining, and I am experiencing similar feelings as when I have been using the errorless learning method to practise drumming co-ordination exercises: not only do I feel like my brain is fried, but there is also a sense of not having learned / achieved anything.  I think this arises from the fact that usually what we consider learning is to be able to explain, recite or regurgitate what we have accumulated, but in the case of implicit learning there is simply a void, as if you spent your maths lessons staring out the window at nothing in particular.  I imagine that this feeling is something we can learn to appreciate or enjoy, and I find that I am becoming more aware of it as it manifests itself in different areas of my life.

I have had moments of “overload” where I am unable to think or say anything, and I couldn’t “remember” or conjure up what number was supposed to come after 127 in any language.  Likewise, with the drumming exercises there are moments when my body is running on automatic and overload causes random things to come out.  In both instances it’s funny to experience, and laughter adds a whole other dimension of distraction and difficulty.

 

Habits, Depression and The Importance of DIY

18.04.18

What is depression or a depressive episode?  I am starting to believe that the illness and the symptoms are often conflated, and that having such a perspective either leads to acute treatments such as electro shock “therapy”, or prescription drugs that are targeted at changing some fundamental problem with the brain and its chemistry, or worse, it leads to the patient believing that they cannot be cured or helped even, and this often serves to reinforce a belief in their own state of powerlessness (the power is in the object).

The maxim “treat the cause, not the symptoms” follows a sound logic when applied to purely mechanical problems, but as we know the brain is far from simply being a complex, mechanical organ, or biological computer even.

To treat mental illness as an engineering problem is to deny the environmental or contextual factors involved, but more significantly it overlooks the self-reflective and re-organisational capacities of the brain that mean that not only is it capable of being affected by physical stimuli, it is also able to produce various sensations and experiences itself, from hallucinations, psychosomatic disorders and various placebo effects to name a few.

The subject/object role of the brain appears to be fluid, so that where a mechanic might treat the problem in a top-down fashion, it seems likely that there is often great potential to fix things with a bottom-up approach.  While traditional treatments such as psychoanalysis, psychotherapy and counselling may at first appear to fit the bottom-up criteria as they don’t involve medication or lobotomy (although may often be used in conjunction), their basis remains in observing and then removing or reconciling some sort of broken part, often in the form of trauma.  If only all of these issues can be rooted out, talked-over and resolved, then the organism can get back to functioning normally.  This is the psychological equivalent of many postural training and “functional” exercise methods.  If we deconstruct the human body and stretch or strengthen this, then the whole will work normally again, but as I noted elsewhere on this blog the mechanistic approach to solving what appear to be, or manifest themselves as physical problems, doesn’t account for the magic-like regulatory powers of the central nervous system.

The search for the miracle cure is just another manifestation of our desire for a quick fix.  Simple doesn’t mean easy, and so, in a contrived way we may just have over-complicated things in our mistaken haste to achieve universal convenience.

My personal experience of depression was always that it was something of which I was under the influence, which is normal considering the language we use to describe such a state.  I had no control, and in fact there were two of me: the one who was depressed and the one who was not, but both were blind to the perspective of the other, and unfortunately there was not a third “I” through which I could view the tormented two at a distance.

There is a strong resemblance between depression and a feeling of profound helplessness and the perceived inability to affect change in the world or in one’s own life, so for me they are interchangeable.  Suicide or suicidal thoughts are the final manifestations of a feeling of extreme powerlessness, as if the fight or flight response has been hijacked, turning the organism inside out and against itself.

Self-help is the ultimate form of treatment, as contained within it is a sense of value that cannot be attained through foreign third parties or their chemical equivalents.  Self-help as a system or philosophy or even just the decision to take things into one’s own hands and begin making change, however seemingly small, are massively important to the psychological well-being of anyone who feels powerless.  I believe that for many people who have “tried everything” and then turn to alternative medicine, therapy, education and so on, the much overlooked or downplayed aspect is in the personal symbolism of such a gesture.  We already know that placebo effects express themselves when the subject is in a situation in which they expect them to occur, which may vary depending on whether we have a preference for hospital or witch doctors.  If we have a history of negative encounters with a particular care-giver or other authority that would in “normal” circumstances help us toward well-being and improvement, if the relationship cannot be mended, then the individual must heal through methods of their own making or choosing.

Sometime after reaching the realm of self-harm and self-destruction I took a step back from the edge because I knew all along that it wasn’t what I really wanted, and with that single ounce of strength I had gained from saving my own life I used it to pay the relevant authorities: the counsellor, the psychiatric nurse and the doctor holding the prescription for Paxil shrouded in a halo of promising white light.

I ultimately rejected medication in all its forms for the reason that I didn’t want to rely on them in order to live a normal or balanced life.  It’s at that point that my journey into self-help and towards recovery began.

It’s not until writing this today that I realised not only the importance of self-help and its connection to recovering from depression, but also the extent to which I have been exercising various self-help techniques in their many forms.  Until now I had seen myself as being on a journey of self-empowerment in the direction of autonomy in various levels, but now I see that I have been implementing my own forms of self-treatment to compensate for all the ways in which civilisation and its traditional structures have failed me, and how the pre-packaged notions and customs are uninspiring to me.

For the first time in my life I feel as if I have just unearthed something about myself that I didn’t know, which now helps explain many of my ideas and actions in a new light.  I had previously envisioned experiential art as a method by which to re-wild individuals; to un-domesticate them, to wake them up and introduce them to some of their own power.  I also see much of my lifestyle as being a form of rehabilitation from decades of exposure to and immersion in a hostile modern environment that is mindlessly self-propagating, and that has neither the interests of the inhabitants of the planet, nor its own, more specialised kind in mind.

I realise that in my own quest for happiness and self-empowerment I want to share that with other people too.  As Ai Weiwei said “I want people to see their own power”.

A year or so ago I came up with the idea for a simple DIY antidepressant.  The object of the exercise is to first make a list of all the behaviours that are characteristic of your “symptoms”, and to then begin deliberately doing the opposite when we notice ourselves depressed or slipping that way.  For example, we may overeat or overindulge in sweet, fatty foods, go to bed too late, get up too late and not get out of the house enough or get adequate exercise.  The anti-depressive heuristic simply tells us to eat better, go to bed sooner, get up earlier and move more!

As this concept turned from an interesting idea into something that I practice more and more, it became clear to me that acting out the symptoms of depression was as much a habit as any other, and it no longer seems to me that it is depression driving the symptoms, but that they have a mind of their own because they are habitual behaviours all the same.  This means that we don’t need to stop or wait until we are cured before we change our habits, but also that because they are habits with their own momentum they will take a lot of effort to slow down and reverse or change, and that in the beginning it will seem like we are not progressing because any attempt to change a habit is an uphill struggle.  It takes more than a few sporadic tries to change a habit we may have spent a lifetime unconsciously practising.

I am learning to feel the resistance to change, and the pull of the habitual behaviour which I now see as simply “the easy thing to do”.  I don’t see myself as a lazy person, so this way of looking at things provides a good motivation to change.  Every time I am conscious of being faced with a choice; the old pathway or the new habit, I no longer act automatically.  Awareness gives me the time to react and then reflect on my choice, so that even if I select the old pattern, I do so from a conscious perspective, which makes it more likely that I will develop a sense of “right” and “wrong” about my choices.  That is to say, knowing that I have already decided that I want to change my habits, there is only so long I can consciously move in a direction that contradicts it.

When I do the difficult thing and avoid my old habits I congratulate myself on doing so, as is rightly warranted, and I am actually beginning to feel better for avoiding them too.  As with all habits they become easier over time as they become more automatic, which highlights the importance of consciously choosing which habits to develop and which to change.

Around November of last year I began another little personal experiment which simply involved me going out the house to walk every day regardless of the weather.  I had already identified that staying in and not getting enough exercise was one of my depression-associated habits, so I wanted to see how having a daily dose of movement out in the fresh air affected me when made a priority.  What I noticed, and this is true of all things around which there is a mental block or some kind of internal resistance, is that my thoughts about what it would be like to go out were much worse, and often not at all like the actual experience itself.  Normally these convincing thoughts and feelings would be enough to prevent me from taking action, but during my month of commitment what I was essentially practising was proving to my brain that it was wrong about the real world.  Every time I have a knee-jerk, habitual, emotional reaction to something, or just the thought of it, by taking swift action I get to collect valuable evidence that my thoughts and their ensuing emotions are not well correlated to the reality of things.  But if instead I allow those thoughts to linger, I inevitably end up feeding them, making it progressively more challenging to try and break away from the thought and to engage in the action.

There were many days when it was cold, wet, windy and grey when I didn’t want to go out, but once I was actually outside I felt even better than when I was at home, thinking about how depressing the weather was.  So while in theory we may recognise that the thought is worse than the reality, it takes consistent experience of that fact in order to override old habits and re-calibrate our perspectives.  This re-calibration is at the heart of my journey towards overcoming incompleteness, because it is the thoughts that present a problem and create a barrier between yourself and immediate, in-the-moment action.

Knowing that part of depression / anxiety is feeling a lack of control or order, it makes sense that having a routine is a good method to counteract disorganisation and associated feelings.  To look at things another way, the behaviours we normally associate with our own depression for example, can be considered negative rituals that we automatically carry out.

Recently I have been focused on developing a strong morning ritual that consists of tidying up things left out from the night before, washing the dishes and clearing up the kitchen.  What this does is not only provide the physical space necessary in order to prepare food for the day, but it also creates a palpable sense of psychological space to enable the day to unfold anew.

Before having this ritual I would notice that I would come into the kitchen hungry, but would not cook because the space was a mess, meaning that either I would try to find something to snack on that didn’t require preparation (which was often both unhealthy and insufficient), or I would go back to what I was doing without eating at all.  Eventually I would have to face the pile of dishes, but by that time I would have spent so long in an unfed state of limbo that I wouldn’t have got any work done in this state of “incompleteness”.

So the ritual serves a practical purpose that has multiple, positive knock-on effects in addition to this psychological sense of freedom.

As with traditional rituals my morning routine as well as any other kitchen time involves a ceremonial dress in the form of an apron.  These kinds of details seem to help bolster the routine by signalling to ourselves that a certain activity will now begin, effectively putting us in the right state of mind beforehand.

I have become ever more aware of this sense of “incompleteness” lately, and how it stems from many things that need to be addressed in some form or another, but are delayed or put off unnecessarily.

While tidying up a physical space seems to have a “resetting” effect, the act of putting things away or cleaning something after use can be seen as the necessary steps that bring finality to any process.  It’s not just that mess is a physical obstacle, but that it is symbolic of a failure to get closure and transition to another phase or a whole new endeavour.  I now feel that I have been unwittingly creating a lot of my own anxiety through various projects and processes that I have begun but failed to see through to the end.  Every time I make a negative but don’t make a print from it I am accumulating more and more things to do: I am adding to my incompleteness.  What this means is that I need to continue to develop the discipline (habit) to finish things, which more often than not takes only a small amount of work, but a lot of anticipated effort.  This also means that I need to be more selective with my time, to avoid engaging in things that I am unlikely to finish in one go or that risk lingering unnecessarily, and to invest that energy in achieving completeness elsewhere.

The same idea not only applies to how I organise output, but equally to various sources of input.  If I have some writing on a topic to do, I consciously avoid doing any significant reading until I am done with my own ideas first.  Initially this was something I did to try to avoid being influenced before expressing my own opinion, but now it is equally about limiting my intake of information if I am not in a position to do anything about it.  If I cannot immediately, or in the immediate future, implement any information that is being diffused by various forms of media, then its practical value is nullified and its effect seems to be an increased sense of incompleteness.

I believe that the culture of the global village is responsible for this strange sense of anxiety and dissonance, as we are faced with innumerable, insurmountable problems that we are unable to affect in any meaningful way.  In normal situations dissonance is resolved one way or another, but the invention of high-speed, worldwide, pocket-sized telecommunications means that not only do we have information on tap that is practical in theory, we also have the world’s problems at our fingertips, and this ease of access is contrasted with our relative powerlessness in the face of what we witness on our screens.

Every day there is the opportunity to collect a new, unresolved problem that is effectively beyond our ability to change.  On a simple level we get a taste for what that feeling is like every time we watch a film that lacks resolution: the killer is never found, the criminal escapes being brought to justice or the central character fails to bring some kind of order to a chaotic and turbulent situation.  This is how we react when we know that the events are fake, and why TV soaps leave us with a habitual cliff-hanger, because the writers know we need psychological resolution, and so they dangle it in front of our noses like a carrot on a stick.  But the news offers no such salvation for either its characters or viewers, and instead there is only distraction in irrelevant, wholly-unrelated, often comical factoids.

People need to regain their own power by realising that it doesn’t stem from the TV remote or smart phone, and that reducing or eliminating their use entirely is the single-most important act in restoring balance.  This collective depression can also be fought on a personal level by choosing to make change on a very local level – which is where we are most effective and receptive to the consequences of our actions.

By giving importance to some biased reporting of an exotic and highly-publicised problem you de-emphasise your own situation in favour of a popular point of focus chosen by a third party.  Your role in your own life is diminished every time you allow others to dictate what is important, interesting or relevant.  There can be no dictatorship without media support, but there is always room for dictatorship without government.

Implicit Motor Learning – External Focus

Implicit Motor Learning for Sports, Dance, Martial Arts and other Movement Practices

For an introduction to implicit motor learning see the following lecture by Professor Rich Masters of the University of Waikato.

Implicit motor learning is when we acquire new skills but are unable to create explicit, verbal descriptions, instructions or rules about the movements needed to complete them.  Simply put, implicit learning results in improved performance, without direct knowledge of the “how?” or “why?” that underlies it.

For example, a coach might talk a student through all of the body positions that they must imitate in order to replicate a tennis stroke, which would engage the working memory and might essentially prove to be “too much information” for the student.  Implicit teaching of the same skill might involve simply using an analogy that imparts all of the necessary information but on a more subconscious level via the use of simile.

The benefit of implicit learning is that skills acquired using such methods are better retained and more importantly, replicated under pressure and fatigue as may be in the case of a performance, a competition or combat.

There are different proposed methods for learning implicitly, but the one I have chosen to focus on for this video is an external focus of attention.  What this involves is that instead of concentrating on what your body is doing while attempting a movement, you instead focus on something external; an object, an apparatus or something in the local environment that is affected by that particular movement.  For example, as with the tennis stroke again, you can either focus on what your arm is doing (internal), or you can focus on what the racket or even ball is doing (external).

As I am more a dancer than a sportsman I tend not to use apparatus, nor affect the external environment in any significant way when I move, which I why I decided that it would be interesting to begin exploring the ways in which different tools can be implemented “artificially” in order to create an external focus that would otherwise not normally exist.  The object, or the tool is only present during the learning stage, and in practice the movement is executed without it.  This concept can be potentially applied to many different scenarios, sports or activities along with the other methods of implicit learning, and with these demonstrations I hope to spark interest in others who will have their own specific needs, goals and ideas for practical application.

Although the purpose of this video is to demonstrate potential uses of the external focus method, the way in which I have structured the exercises naturally makes use of another method: errorless learning.  By breaking down the movement into small components each one can be practiced individually and with little need to call upon the working memory due to their simplicity.  As the task is simplified there is a greatly reduced tendency to think about what is happening or why, which means that successful implementation of errorless learning will lead to skills being acquired implicitly.  I will demonstrate use of external focus in tasks that are unrelated to one another, as well as ideas for creating errorless learning exercises in future videos.

Implicit motor learning is not currently something well known outside of academic circles, yet it has the potential to make huge changes to the way we think about movement (and how we might stop thinking) and how we perceive the teacher-student relationship.  This is because the underlying implication of implicit methods is that not only are they perhaps the best way to learn, but that we are all capable of learning in a more natural way that doesn’t require anything near the amount of interference and verbal over-complication that we have become accustomed to as language-led animals.  Instead of the almighty teacher passing on wisdom to the lowly student, the power roles are reversed, and it is the job of the teacher to coach in such a way that simply brings out the natural capacities of the student.  From this new perspective the teaching styles we are probably most accustomed to might not only be barriers to effective learning, but also barriers to realising our own power and importance within the process.

The following demonstration uses the example of the one inch punch as the final skill to be acquired, but as you will see the exercises themselves can also be used or modified to serve other purposes – learning never happens in a vacuum.  This is not a tutorial about how to learn an effective one inch punch, rather it is an exercise in generating ideas about how a theoretical model can be applied to different real-world situations.


 

 

Wrist movement and strength

The first clips show the initial ideas that I had, and as such, they are perhaps a little unnecessarily complicated.  The idea is that instead of simply concentrating on the stick, the resulting movement from the wrist is transferred along the stick, to the string and to the weight attached to the end (a pine cone).  Conceptually speaking, concentrating on the pine cone is supposed to be further removed from the wrist than either the stick or the string, thus being “more” external.  As the following example demonstrates, I took this external distance a step further by actively trying to hit a target with the pine cone, albeit a large one.  The (potential) problem is that in order to make the pine cone move in such a way as to strike the target with the greatest force, there is a certain amount of timing necessary, and the placement of the arm and length of the string play an important role.  These requirements may actually be beneficial in particular circumstances, but it’s unsure whether there is any advantage to making the focus more removed from the initiating movement, and it seems that by complicating the exercise in this way, it could have the opposite of the intended effect.  Thus, this variation is probably suited to more advanced learners.

As the next videos show, I simplified the exercise while gaining an improved sense of feedback from the impact with the metal bar, which I eventually changed to the punch bag which allows you to hit with greater speed without the stress of contacting an entirely solid object at speed.  Any object could potentially be placed or hung at the desired height, but as I demonstrate the exercise can be performed with the arm in different positions in order to change the emphasis and stress.  The movement is also done in the opposite direction with the stick facing behind, so that strength can be built symmetrically.  Other factors that can be altered include: how close to the end of the stick it is gripped, how long or heavy the stick is, and how thick it is.  Positioning yourself so that the impact is near the end of range of motion, near the beginning, or somewhere in the middle is also a variable to consider.

The final wrist exercise is a similar movement that only requires a stick, the other difference is that it is the opposite hand that is absorbing the impact, so this also functions as a conditioning exercise for the hands.

In all wrist exercises the movement should come from the wrist alone, and not from closing the grip around the stick as if simultaneously squeezing and lifting up.  More movement can be created this way, but it gives a false impression of the role, and therefore strength of the wrist.  Both can be practised though, as transitioning from a loose grip to a tightly-held fist is another useful skill.

Torque and force transmission

Utilising the stick and punch bag once again, I devised this technique for teaching the hips/torso how to generate power.  With the stick held firmly against the body it is left up to the body to determine how to move, while you simply concentrate on hitting the bag with the stick.  A solid grip on the stick means that you will not be able to use your arms to assist with the movement.

The next variation is a step up which could be regressed into a step forward, or modified further by being incorporated into different lunges or striking at different stages of the lunge/stepping movement.  In the first example I am stepping with the right leg while turning in a clockwise direction, and then using the opposite leg while still turning the same way.  The same is then repeated in an anticlockwise direction.  The movement has been made more complex by forcing the body to generate force from a single leg which requires more involvement from the surrounding stabilising muscles.

Other progressions might include increasing the height of the step, decreasing the stability of the standing leg, adding resistance to the movement either on the body or the stick, or calling for the movement to be executed more explosively with a jump for example.

It’s important to note that although I am demonstrating the hips and torso as one, the position of the stick can be changed in order to isolate just the hips, or could be carried out in a sitting position in order to isolate the upper body.

The next exercise is essentially the same movement, except that with the stick and the arm outstretched we are now turning rotational force into forward force, which is perhaps the most important element in maximising how much can be generated from a static position.  Failing to generate or transfer force from the lower body means that you will be relying solely on the relatively smaller muscles of your arm to do all the work.

The more the arm remains in both the same horizontal and vertical planes, the less energy is wasted and will be transferred into forward motion.  Although I practised this concept by feel, having a precise target to focus on should help ensure that the arm does not waver.  This is a good example of when the use of a very light stick would be better suited to the task, as the excess weight can make it difficult to maintain a straight line of movement.

This longer clip is just me experimenting with putting the pieces together while still using the stick to give me a feel for how well the movements were occurring.

The final piece is an example of how precision could be practised, although it would be unnecessary and even counterproductive to train at full speed in the learning stage.

 

Reverse Capoeira

 

“There’s more to fishing than catching fish”

In the documentary A Passion for Angling this sentiment, or philosophy rather, is made eloquently clear through the tales and adventures of two old friends and fishing partners, Bob James and Chris Yates.  It’s almost as if the actual act of catching a fish is merely a bi-product of the activities that surround it, with particular emphasis on time spent in peaceful appreciation and contemplation of nature.

To this day it remains an inspirational souvenir from my childhood that captures many different qualities that I still find important, all wrapped up in the myth of the traditional fisherman.

Having been hunter-gatherers in a not-too-distant past, it seems likely that we are all inseparable from the non-obvious rewards that accompany such activities.

Deriving a sense of pleasure from life-saving, life-preserving and life-creating activities can be seen as nature’s way of reinforcing itself through ourselves and through multiple secondary benefits.  It also seems likely that we enjoy spending time immersed in the natural world because it was a necessary part of hunting and gathering.  Now our search-engines do all the hunting, and consequently all the legwork, and the gathering is carried out by third parties in the third world.

Unless we are to return to such primitive ways of living, there remains this untapped innate connection, and the opportunity to live a more fuller life through exercising neglected aspects of our humanity.  But conversely, there are other, non-desirable aspects that we would be better off without, this is why violence and war will continue to linger for the foreseeable future, provided that humans are still around, because these harmful activities fulfil age-old needs, despite huge differences in our environment and social structures.  In the same way that we can benefit from making use of our biology in healthy, non-destructive ways, we also remain vulnerable to exploitation in the form of superstimuli, and higher powers who wish to manipulate us for their own purposes.  The most obvious example of this in practice is war.  Young individuals, mostly male, are shipped off to die heroic deaths, to exercise their fight or flight response in the most realistic scenarios possible, and for those who do make it back they have likely undergone the most powerful of bonding experiences the modern world has yet to replicate elsewhere than the battlefield.

It’s easy to dismiss war as a barbaric tradition, yet its worldwide prevalence is a testament to how much we need it, or at the very least, something that closely resembles it.  Computer games don’t create heroes, nor help fulfil such myths as they lack skin in the game, except perhaps that of the thumbs.  They are essentially play-play-fights carried out visually and sedentarily.  Team sports take things further by allowing the creation of an “other”; an opponent to be “beaten”, which has the advantage of implicating the spectators who can also enjoy a slice of the contrived conflict, albeit from a position in the stands.  From this point of view, football hooliganism seems like a natural re-evolution of what the sports and fanaticism all stood (in) for in the first place.  It seems that some prosthetics may just never be enough for some people.  And while computer games present us with many forms of play-play-fighting, sports such as boxing and cage fighting represent the grown-up and brutally organised end of the spectrum.  The blood, sweat and tears are all real, yet the motives are often empty and meaningless.  This is how civilised human beings agree to bash each other’s heads in.  By these standards wrestling theatrics are merely symbols for the enjoyment of the half-hearted fan who is unwilling to lay anything on the line, who instead of play-fighting, pays to watch others do it for him.

Despite our innumerable successes in manufacturing addictive and harmful superstimulants and in exploiting our primitive brains, we have yet to make progress in turning our weaknesses to our collective advantage.  The secret lies in first acknowledging the vulnerability in question, and then testing various potential, healthy replacements and diversions.  it may be the case that we cannot eliminate all evil in one fell-swoop, or go cold turkey on war, and that instead we must settle for the current lesser of the evils.  All of this remains highly personal though, so one man’s martial art may be another man’s war.  The key is to concentrate on searching for and developing alternative outlets.

If war and violence are not simply about defeating the enemy, then understanding those secondary, and non-obvious aspects of physical conflict can help shed light on what kinds of activity may be beneficial in the process of weaning ourselves off of this particular drug.  Differentiating between the icing and the cake itself is a useful exercise for a culture that eats too much cake in the relentless pursuit of icing.

I realised some time ago that sports and other physical activities were actually just starting points, or excuses to enjoy and explore the different uses and capabilities of my body.  This idea became more solidified as I began to engage in and seek out manual labour “for the sake of it”.

Music is as much of a physical practice as it is an audibly expressive one, and just as different sports require different skills and parts of the body, so too does each instrument.  I have progressed from the piano to practising coordination exercises for drumming which makes everything that bit more explicitly percussive, while changing the involvement of the limbs and the complexity of their use – two hands vs ten fingers.

If you limit your physical practice to those things only currently accepted, categorised, reinforced and promoted as being valid options, then you cut yourself off from the vast sphere of all possible options, which includes a huge chunk of (personally) unexplored terrain.  The difference between moving thousands of kilos of furniture and an equivalent weight in the gym is not really down to the environment or the shape of the objects, but the context of the intention.  Either one could be both a chore or a pleasurable workout or challenge and so on, they key is the mindset which is always separate from the environment and the apparatus.  The mindset is mobile, and having a mobile mindset is imperative to adaptation in the long run.

My ongoing interest in the martial arts has not been kept alive by the inextricable kicks and punches, but by the training methods, and the simple idea that if you do something for long enough, you will get good at it: the same concept that gives fingers a mind of their own helps humans gain inhuman strength and capabilities.

I also have a particular fondness for the training regimes of boxers; the hard grind and cardio that leaves people in a heap of limp, sweaty mush by the end of the session is something to be admired.  While I had these myths and ideas in mind as I purchased a second-hand punchbag, my intention was never to become a boxer, or martial artist even, but to use the bag as a novel movement stimulus.

Capoeira is sometimes said to have evolved from the need to train a martial art in secret, and so it was disguised as a dance.  I like to dance while disguising my movement as something more practical, and more deadly.  I call it reverse capoeria.

 

Testing Times

08.11.17

In the same way that there are multiple lenses with which to view exercise, there are also many uses or purposes of testing.  In classical education tests are mostly exercises in regurgitation, where the student with the best memory is able to perform the best.  Individual sports such as running or weightlifting are also a kind of regurgitation, or mechanical performance of techniques that have been practised over and over, where the rules and the task are well known.  In such cases we may wonder what the purpose of testing or competing is.  Is it to see how well we perform under pressure, or is it primarily a means by which to judge one’s self against others?  The aspects of competition or testing in these cases are very limited, because the participants are aware of what is precisely demanded of them, and have months and sometimes years to prepare for a relatively one-dimensional performance.  Because of this I don’t see competition and testing in their traditional forms to be very beneficial for would-be competitors.

Anticipation gives us time to prepare, and the existence of structured and routinely programmed tests, especially when we are told exactly what we’ll be tested on, remove the opportunity for surprise.  It’s as if most tests have been designed for the purpose of making sure that participants fail as little as possible.

If you suddenly found yourself stranded on a desert island and had to seek shelter, build a fire and find food, that would be a test.  But if you spent months learning and practising how to start a fire, make a shelter and find food on that exact island before being left there alone, it wouldn’t be much of a test would it?  Or, at the very least, it wouldn’t be the same kind of test.

At the heart of this idea is expectation, and that if we make plans and train based on expectations we limit our options for exploration and spontaneous adaptation.  In a sense, training for a known or anticipated scenario biases us and changes the way we view the world.  As long as there is a well-defined goal there will always be a most efficient solution to reach it, which means that most testing has the effect of getting us to focus on efficiency for the sake of reaching that goal.

Professional sports is one relevant realm where the goals are clear, and where efficiency is paramount because it leads to winning more, which ultimately means more financial reward.  But outside of sport the most efficient way often strongly correlates to whatever the majority happen to be doing, as following requires no self-reflection, personal investment or creativity.

Creativity and exploration demand uncertainty which is why it can be emotionally challenging to be an explorer or artist.  Living in constant doubt and darkness takes its toll, and so the explorer must return to the comfort of familiar territory from time to time, just as long as he doesn’t build his home there and then never leave.

So the real tests are not so much the ones we choose ourselves, except when we choose to submit to the challenge of unpredictable outside forces.  It’s too easy to select challenges that don’t do much to push ourselves beyond our comfort zones, and of course we must all start somewhere, but I believe that the direction must be towards more uncertainty and a relinquishment of control.  Training for Ninja Warrior on your backyard replica course is very different from entering the competition with little or no experience of the kinds of obstacles you will encounter.

For me, a meaningful test is an adaptation or improvisational challenge that should help stimulate growth and generate new information and perspectives about one’s self and the world around us.  This is why repetitive activity, including preparation for competitions gets old quickly, because the cognitive complexity is soon reduced to a process of primarily tissue adaptation after a relatively few exposures.  Thinking on your feet becomes mere foot strengthening.

Weightlifting, even bodyweight training is like having a predictable sparring partner who just takes more and more hits to knock down over time.  The anarchic, improvisational-challenge perspective is to change partners once you discover their weaknesses and then defeat them.

The balance needed to be a successful artist is between ultimate freedom and constraint.  Freedom is exciting, wild and scary, and can present a challenge in itself for those who are unorganised or used to having things habitually handed to them on a plate.  Freedom means that you must decide the operating parameters, the goals and the means to get there.  Freedom ultimately puts you in charge of defining the constraints.  We define, explore, refine and narrow down the list of possibilities until we reach a goal, a fork in the road, or a point at which we decide to go in a completely different direction or to just stop all together.  Wherever we go or end up though, there is always a constant movement between freedom and constraint, or else we stagnate.

If we have too much freedom we do nothing; too much constraint and we do the same thing over and over again.

In this case at least, balance isn’t about finding the centre point between the two and then staying there indefinitely, it is about developing an instinct for when to move towards one or the other, and then acting upon it.

The Hidden Pathway

06.11.17

Some months ago I began writing a list of exercises for learning how to control the lumbar spine and how to differentiate between movement that originates in the hip from that of the low back.  As my list of variations grew an interesting pattern emerged: all of these exercises required and promoted “core” strength as a kind of side-effect.  I came to call this method “implicit strength training”, but at the time I hadn’t yet applied the idea elsewhere and it seemed paradoxical to think of training the core by not training it.  This concept drew awareness to the often hidden benefits to any particular set of exercises or method.

As the weeks went by, during various moment of my training I began to tune into the implicit strength aspects of what I was doing, while juggling and playing throwing and catching games I saw how I was also conditioning not just the skin on my hands but also the bones, through the repetitive impacts of catching spinning sticks and logs.

Returning to an even earlier point a couple of years ago when I wasn’t doing any type of training or exercise, I decided that without having any strong motivations for moving I would use manual labour as a point of entry, or excuse to introduce movement into my life again.  Sweeping leaves taught me a number of things that I had forgotten in my sedentary state, most importantly, that movement and physical effort or exertion were enjoyable activities in and of themselves, regardless of what outcomes they implied or lead to.  I was also reminded that for me at least, movement is often a meditative activity, I.e. one in which I am completely focused on the present moment, enjoying the different kinetic sensations that arise from any particular action.  In addition, I was aware of the strength requirements and eventual adaptations that would result from habitually moving in such a way.

Sweeping was not a mere chore that had to be finished and as quickly as possible, but it was an opportunity to benefit from an activity in multiple, non-obvious ways.  Each movement was something that could be practiced and refined if only we decided to give it our attention and deem it worthy of our time.  The irony being, that when we make the effort to give ourselves completely to whatever we may be doing we no longer wish for time to pass quicker, and we stop seeing things as being a “waste” of time or as obstacles to achieving our goals.

For Daniel, waxing cars and painting fences was a waste of time because he had wanted to learn karate, but what he didn’t realise at the time was that he was learning, and that in fact there were many such opportunities throughout the day to practice, to learn and to improve implicitly.

Just as parkour uses obstacles as tools with which to strengthen the mind and body, the implicit learning mindset takes this a step further by applying it to all activities and all obstacles, both physical and metaphorical.

What the implicit model of learning highlights is that in our attempts to decrease work and make life more efficient and convenient we successfully reduce exercise down to what we consider the bare essentials, to our own detriment.

The trend of isolating muscles in order to train them is actually a fool’s quest, because not only does the body function as a single coordinated unit both in daily life and in sport, but ironically, if we are successful in isolating  movements, NOT muscles, we call upon a much larger range of musculature to stabilise the body while one or two joints move under control. Badly executed barbell curls that resemble strange hyper-extended deadlifts are an example of someone who thinks they are isolating their biceps, but would benefit from a free ab workout among other things if true joint isolation were to be practised. Gymnastics rings offer the most difficult and purest form of controlled joint isolations imaginable, which makes the rings a great tool for practising and increasing the skill of paired stabilisation/mobilisation, and also a diagnostic tool for finding weaknesses or areas that lack necessary control.

In nature everything is experienced multi-dimensionally and has many implicit elements.  Problems begin to show up when we attempt to isolate and prise apart these elements from their intrinsic structures because in doing so we are ignoring the context in which they have grown.  If we cut off the philosophy (or fighting) from a martial art we are left with competition or meaningless movement.

As I have previously hinted at I believe that what is often referred to as the soul is actually a number of non-obvious, invisible and implied characteristics of an object, activity or being.  Martial arts minus philosophy is soulless, a person without strong guiding values, morals and purpose: soulless.  A meal from a blender or microwaved package: soulless.

In this way we could see that attempts to alter traditions whether they originate in martial arts, religions, governments or other areas of society are deeply felt threats that are more than simple challenges to beliefs and norms, but are threats to the very soul, that act on an emotional and not intellectual level.

Soullessness is simply a synonym for “there’s something important missing from this equation”, where that important thing might just be in the eye of the beholder.

I believe that soulfulness equates with wholeness, in other words, an appreciation and expression from multiple angles maximises soul, while anything isolated is soulless.  The soul needs a body to inhabit, and not just a few skin cells.

This explains another part of the internal dilemma I had about creating my own non-martial art, which was the feeling that I was somehow contributing to a less-soulful universe.  I realised that I had successfully isolated many disparate ingredients for my home-brewed concoction, and that I now needed to put them together, to create something new and above all, whole.  I needn’t have worried though, as my intention has always been to move away from efficiency and towards deeper meaning and purpose stemming from honest self-expression.

How did I do that?  How did I get here?  These are typical feelings of those who learn implicitly, and ironically it was such a question, along with a desire to know more for the sake of self-improvement and ultimately sharing my experience with others, that lead me down a long tunnel away from self-knowledge and a naturally instinctive approach to everything in life.  I learned a lot of interesting things during that time, in a backwards, inside-out kinda way, but despite it being interesting most of that information did little to benefit me in any practical way, and more importantly it left my original question unanswered.

Now I know that I don’t want to know.  My new question however, is how can others be taught, or should I say guided towards the path of implicit learning and instinctive exploration?  Bruce Lee would have called this a study of unnatural naturalness, and I have already begun experimenting recently with novel techniques designed to facilitate skill acquisition in an unconscious manner.  My past experience though, is grounded in accidental strength, but it remains to be seen whether I can take that experience to build a useful model for others, and whether or not the other implicit qualities can be successfully integrated along with all the additional, less physical, but nevertheless important aspects of my non-martial art.

This is the challenge facing anyone wishing to design their own ritual: how to mould separate and unrelated elements together in order to form a coherent whole that appears as natural as possible, while providing the benefits you want without introducing problems.  This is another example of unnatural naturalness, but on a different level.

Perhaps the pursuit of a purpose-built, all encompassing way of life, philosophy and culture will suffer the same problems my other non-instinctive activities did, except this time on an all-encompassing scale.  I see the problem as ultimately being an artistic one though; a challenge of creating a sense of order from chaos, of building a whole that is greater than the sum of all its components.  I have already chosen the main ingredients instinctively, what remains now is how they are put together, and it seems highly likely that the result will be a surprising one.

Mobility, Metaphors and Cached Selves

06.11.17

The book Metaphors We Live By has been a great inspiration to me ever since I read it earlier this year.  One thing that came to light while reading was the way in which my relationship with my body was shaped by unhelpful metaphors.  The first that I noticed was the idea of mobility or flexibility as being an unobtainable object.  This idea of mobility as an object can be demonstrated by such phrases as “what will you do with your new-found mobility?” and “I’ve lost my mobility since last year” for example.  But for me, mobility wasn’t simply an object that you either have or do not have, it was impossible for me to get it no matter how hard I tried!

The second part of the metaphor describes a binary state which hides the reality that mobility is pretty much always present in varying degrees, as long as we remain alive.  When imagined as something perpetually out of reach the metaphor is successful in preventing me from exercising whatever mobility I do have, which is perhaps the most important point, especially as far as adaptation is concerned.  This isn’t just a philosophical idea; if we focus on what we lack instead of the things that we have available and perhaps take for granted, it’s quite possible that we let opportunity go to waste along with various physical and mental attributes.  Use it or lose it.

This realisation was like a fog suddenly lifting to reveal the sun that had been there all along.  I wasn’t at all as immobile and helpless as I had felt and acted, and instead of mobility being unobtainable it was an ever-present quality to be deliberately expressed.

The second metaphor that I unearthed dates back at least 10 years, and is one that more people can possibly relate to which is energy or strength as a limited resource.  While it is less obvious that this concept is a metaphor it works in similar ways to the first, which is that it limits our actions by conceptualising strength itself in a limited way.  In my own experience and no matter how absurd it may seem, what this meant was for me was that once again I failed to express what strength and energy I did have, and as my dad might say, I was “coming from a place of scarcity”.  I felt at the time, all those years ago, that I was almost “saving” my strength for some other, more important occasion that of course, never came.

As with the first metaphor, the implications are that by failing to express my strength I missed the opportunities for further growth that would have stemmed from regular, unrestricted use of what I already had.

Energy and strength are limited in a real sense, but the real-world restrictions are not well-represented by their metaphorical counterparts.

In my own case at least, it appears that metaphors were not the only things at work, and I suspect that consistency bias played a role too.  By proclaiming my inflexibility or weakness I would trap myself in a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, propped up by cognitive metaphor.  Memories of myself declaring and acting in accordance with my apparent inflexibility would help form an almost unbreakable self-image over time.  Even if I attempted to change this image, it’s likely that my view of such attempts would be biased by my prior beliefs.  I.e. my beliefs would influence not only the quality and quantity of attempts to change, but my opinion of those attempts would also likely overstate the effort I put in while understating the results.  In this way, our past actions are used as a rough template of how we expect to behave in the future, which saves us the trouble of having to go out and create our self-image from scratch every morning.  The problem is we can get stuck with an undesirable self-concept and not know how to change it, or even realise we have it, as in the case of metaphor.

This is one reason I believe that much more importance should be given to psychological factors and influences when it comes to understanding one’s relationship with the body and exercise or movement.  The mind provides the foundation for a willing body to follow.

A final, more obscure example of how thoughts have influenced my behaviour also dates back at least a decade.  I recall a dream I had in which I found myself dancing in front of a large audience, where I was aware of being extremely self-conscious because I felt that everyone could see through me, as if the act of dancing rendered my thoughts and emotions visible.  Although this was a dream, at the time it made me realise that this was how I saw dance, and that I didn’t want to actually express myself in this way, or that perhaps I had just wanted to be different, to be someone and to feel something I would be proud to express.

This metaphor of dance as a display of emotion or of my “true self”, as it had felt to me in my dream, undoubtedly played a significant role in retarding my growth, just like the other metaphors seem to have done.  Feeling depressed, worthless and incapable, meant that as a reflection of these thoughts and emotions, dance itself became an act that reinforced my poor self-image, which in turn limited how I danced in public.  The circle was a vicious one.

Lately I have been dancing again, but from a new perspective, utilising more useful metaphors to promote a healthy self-image.  There is a lot of work to be done and a lot of harm to be un-done, but I am already beginning to feel physically and mentally different, in all likelihood due to a combination of my relaxation practice and a deliberate attempt to exercise and appreciate the qualities I already have.  Whatever the root causes, I am feeling more positive about the future.