The Brain's Mirror | Oct 2005

FMBR Editorial: Oct, 2005

The Brain's Mirror

William C. Gough

A number of years ago I started attending a martial arts class taught by Gregory Yau, a Shaolin master. The martial arts can be viewed as effective combat systems, sophisticated meditative disciplines, or as an integration of both approaches. Greg taught a style of gung-fu, a generic term for acquired skill, based upon techniques developed at the Shaolin Temple in China that date back to the sixth century. His focus was upon the spiritual dimensions. My intention was to observe the details of the body movements to understand how slight changes in the movement pattern altered the effectiveness of the training. I was in effect a "scientific observer" once a week of the practices and the training videos that Greg played and gave me. However, I was in for a surprise. My physical strength and well being were being enhanced by merely observing. When Greg and his students tested my grounding it was as solid as theirs and blows to my arm were painless to me but hurt the "attacker." This greatly surprised the young students since I was in my 70s and essentially not doing the practices. A side effect was that a skipping heart beat that had existed for decades disappeared.

I was never able to satisfactorily explain what was happening. However, recent research on a "mirror" mechanism built into our brain has shed some light on the effects that I was experiencing. There has been discovered a class of neurons in the brain called "mirror neurons" that have the amazing ability to transmit electrical impulses not only during the execution of a particular action, but also during observation of the equivalent action being carried out by someone else. Neuron activity in the brain has been found to mirror not only movements but also intentions, sensations, and emotions of those around us. For example, you are watching a movie and on the screen you see a tarantula moving across the pillow towards a man in bed. If you get the creeps as you watch the tarantula crawl up the man's arm, it's because the scene activates the same neurons that would be responding if the tarantula were crawling up your arm -- your brain translates what you are observing into sensations.

Neuroscientists have documented this type of brain mirroring first in monkeys and later in humans. Researchers have used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and other techniques to investigate brain mirroring and have identified mirror-like activity in several regions of the human brain. The research findings also suggest that the mirror neurons encode particular observed actions in context-dependent ways -- in effect the brain's mirroring allows one to understand another's intentions -- for example, are you moving your arm to get food to eat or to get a non-food object?

Our brain's mirroring ability enables us to learn from watching others. It is an important real-life survival skill -- in fact people with autism and related disorders tend to have abnormalities in their brain's mirroring system. Today's electronic technology bombards us with a magnitude of images that human brains have never experienced before -- we are creating an artificial visual "reality." The effects can be either positive or negative upon our bodies and emotions. Continuous repetition is considered essential in advertising, sports, and spiritual practices -- it is a technique to imprint or "rewire" the brain. Repeated observation of the sacred gung-fu movements strengthens me. However, what happens to the brains and bodies of young men, women, and children who are repeatedly observing and experiencing the violence and horrors of war and terrorism in areas like Iraq, Palestine, and the Sudan? And what is happening to the be brains of our children as they watch the increasing levels of violence being projected via our television, movies and computer games? Only through understanding and our intentions can we use the mind mirroring process to guide us towards a more humane future.

William C. Gough, FMBR Chairman of the Board; October, 2005


Michael Maliszewski, Spiritual Dimensions of the Martial Arts, Charles E. Tuttle co., Rutland, VT, 1996, pp. 43-51. This is an extensive study of the spiritual aspects of fighting arts around the world.

Emily Arnold McCully, Beautiful Warrior: The Legend of the Nun's Kung Fu, Scholastic Press, NY, 1998. This is a beautiful children's book based upon the Shaolin history and technique that tells the story of a young girl in 17th century China.

Kiyoshi Nakahara and Yasushi Miyashita, "Understanding Intentions: Through the Looking Glass," Science, Vol 308, April 29, 2005, pp.644-645.

L.Fogassi, P.F.Ferrari, B.Gesierich, S.Rozzi, F.Chersi, G.Rizzolatti, "Parietal Lobe: From Action Organization to Intention Understanding," Science, Vol 308, April 29, 2005, pp.662-666.

Greg Miller, "Reflecting on Another's Mind: Mirror Mechanisms Built Into the Brain May Help Us Understand Each Other," Science, Vol 308, May 13, 2005, pp.945-947.

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