Multitasking? The Mind, Attention, and Intention in Taijiquan.

First the bad news: research indicates that humans are not really capable of multitasking (actively thinking about multiple things simultaneously). However, if some task is routine, then we can focus on another task simultaneously.

When trying to focus on more than one task, we rapidly switch our attention from one task to another. Although it seems instantaneous, switching from one task to another is neither fast nor smooth. There is a significant lag of up to 40% longer than when focusing on a single task, especially when the tasks are complex, or when they use the same type of brain processing.

Research indicates that we may be able to switch focus between two tasks, since our brains are accustomed to either-or (binary) choices. The two frontal lobes of the brain apparently can serial task. One lobe’s task is on hold while the other task is being executed, and this pattern switches back and forth rapidly. But a third task is too much to focus on, and the brain will prefer to drop one task rather than switching between the three.

This system allows us to ignore distractions when we desire to focus on something that we judge to be important. Of course, some people are better at ignoring distractions than others are. People often benefit from meditation to clear the clutter from their minds that distracts them from focusing on current tasks.

Slight of hand magicians use our one-track-mind nature to distract us from what they do not want us to see. They use gestures, choreographed movements, eye contact and facial expressions, a distracting patter of speech – multiple things to catch our eyes and ears and keep our minds off balance. Their success is an indication of how poorly humans focus on multiple things.

When young, many of us have experienced the difficulty of patting our head while simultaneously rubbing our belly, and those people who are especially clumsy are teased with the exaggeration that they cannot walk and chew gum at the same time.

Of course, walking and eating are routine for most people, so we should be able to do these activities simultaneously. But what about martial arts, where the opponent presents us with variable stimuli when interacting with us? Even in controlled freestyle push-hands interactions, we typically need to be aware of what both of their hands are doing, even if the legs are not also allowed to attack us.

Training does help to make tasks familiar enough to focus on other aspects of an interaction. For example, a drummer in an improvisational music group can use both arms and both legs to produce different rhythmic patterns, all while tracking the progressions of the musical piece, as well as listening to what the other musicians are doing, and modifying their drumming to complement the other musicians. Some drummers can even sing while playing (adding melody to their focus on rhythm).

Taijiquan (太極拳) practitioners often start by learning the choreography of a solo form. This is motor learning (“muscle memory”) or learning specific movements through repetition. Eventually, the moves will become familiar enough that less attention needs to be devoted to them, and eventually they can be performed without conscious effort (the movements are stored in the brain as memories). But even after learning the form, practitioners can usually only focus on one or two aspects for refinement during each practice.

Taijiquan solo training is not so different than the following description for dancers:

“Most dancers share a relatively similar path, first learning the choreography and then adding layers of detail and color. Finally, they absorb the work so completely that its elements literally become automatic, leaving the dancer’s brain free to focus on the moment-by-moment nuances of the performance” (Diane Soloway, 5/28/2007).

Neuroscientists describe this as having the movements mapped to the brain, creating a shorthand between thinking and doing. You learn parts of a movement in pieces, and these pieces merge into phrases and longer sequences. Eventually the movements become so natural that you only need the intent to do something, and the body does it, without the need to actively think about the pieces.

The importance of the mind in learning motor skills is confirmed by observable improvements even when a person practices mentally rather than physically. One tip for dancers learning choreography is to watch before trying to do. “You need to get it into your head before your head can direct it to your body” (Miss P, 11/17/2014).

But fighting in martial arts is not choreographed. We may have trained our bodies to move in certain ways, but there are numerous things to pay attention to when interacting with someone else. How can we fight effectively when there are so many things to think about?

First – know yourself. The better we are at our own movements, and therefore the less we need to pay attention to ourselves, the more we can use the brain’s limited resources to pay attention to the interactions with the opponent. If we can group our responses into a single concept, then we will not have multiple items to divide our attention.

Some practitioners group their own body responses into the feeling of being centered (中定 zhong ding). As long as that feeling remains, then the ways that they are moving do not draw their attention. If one looses that feeling, then they know that they may be vulnerable, and they may need to pay attention to their own body in order to correct the mistake(s) before the opponent takes advantage.

Other practitioners use the image of being like a ball floating on water. The ball is always centered due to its round shape, but it also moves freely, and instantly, in response to the opponent’s touch. This image simplifies the practitioner’s movements; with only this one intent, the mind is free to pay attention to other things. We want things to “feel right” so that the specifics do not need to be focused on. We want to be one resilient, agile, comfortable, coordinated whole.

In both of the above examples, the movements learned in solo forms training should be the ingrained, routine method of movement (the “muscle memory”). For a skilled practitioner, these would no longer need to be focused on when interacting with someone else.

If ones routine method of movement is “when one part moves, all parts move,” then this will be the method of moving even when it is not specifically being focused on. Also, if one practiced generating power from the feet and legs, and directing the power with the waist to be expressed at the point of contact with an opponent, then that will be how one produces, directs, and expresses power even when it is not being focused on.

Second – know the opponent. Once a practitioner knows themselves, they can focus on their opponent.

If we are comfortable, then we can respond to the opponent’s movements faster, since a comfortable, trained body should be properly aligned and integrated, and ready for both defensive and offensive actions. If we can then focus on having a sensitive feeling that is ready and able to act, then we are not dividing our attention into multiple components needed for immediate responses.

Paying attention to the opponent by using multiple senses helps us increase our awareness of them. In Taijiquan, we want to know the opponent through the sense of touch rather than relying only on sight. An analogy for this is that we want to be like a spider sensing all directions through their web. By touching the web, the spider senses all parts of the web (practitioners sensing the entire opponent through one contact point).

The lack of ability to multitask also makes sense of the need for a calm mind. Extraneous thoughts and emotions only tax our ability to focus our attention on the interactions with the opponents. Occasionally one can focus an emotion into a benefit in a fight, but emotions typically reduce performance. For example, anger can lead to over-aggressiveness; fear triggers our “fight-or-flight” response; low self esteem can result in hesitation; etc.

We want to maintain our concentration and awareness without being distracted. But with so many things to pay attention to in a fight, how can we avoid splitting our attention and suffering from the inefficiency of “multitasking” (switching rapidly between tasks, or even dropping tasks if there are more than two)?

We have all likely experienced the problem of focusing on one of the opponent’s hands during push-hands (tui shou 推手) training, and getting caught by the actions of the other hand, or of becoming vulnerable to a counterattack when we are focused on our own attack. By gaining an overall sense, rather than focusing on specific individual parts, practitioners can group tasks together and limit the number of tasks that the mind needs to focus on.

The Taijiquan classic attributed to Wang Zongyue contains the following (as translated by Paul Brennan): “Although there is an endless variety of possible scenarios, there is only this single principle [of yielding and sticking] throughout.” This is an example of how to act in response to complex and variable interactions while simplifying the mental tasks needed (and thus avoiding the problems caused by our inability to multitask).

One can look at interacting with an opponent as wanting to remain comfortable while making the opponent uncomfortable. Taijiquan does this through yielding (to remain comfortable) and sticking (to make the opponent uncomfortable).

The same classic also states: “The basic of basics is to forget about your plans and simply respond to the opponent.” By forgetting about specific plans of your own, the mind is not distracted by the requirements of that plan, freeing the mind up for focusing on what is actually occurring with the opponent.

Other martial arts may take a different approach from Taijiquan, relying on being aggressive and initiating the interaction. This allows them to dictate the interaction (using their plan) so that they are using a technique that is routine, and for which many of the possible reactions are known and have been practiced against. This approach counters the lack of multitasking ability by attempting to keep the interaction within what has become routine for that fighter. If the recipient has not gained familiarity with the attack, then their mind will be occupied (distracted) by their specific response to the specific attack.

The problem with that approach is that it works poorly during novel situations. Taijiquan seeks to use a method that can respond appropriately to any situation, whether or not the practitioner is familiar with the specific situation.

There are other sayings and analogies that some practitioners use for Taijiquan, some of which are given below.

A properly inflated ball that is floating on water reacts instantly to any force contacting it, and this analogy is sometimes used to provide a mental image that responds without needing numerous individual thoughts. To be useful, this analogy needs proper structure training (knowing yourself) and proper resiliency (relaxation) and freedom of movement (ability to change).

Since the ball analogy is primarily defensive and does not really address attacking the opponent, another analogy is often used: attack like a river flowing to the sea (or, against an opponent, flowing towards their spine). Like a river, any obstruction or resistance is simply flowed around, and the Taijiquan practitioner does not need to focus on the multitude of potential ways that the opponent may resist the advance.

The ball provides defense, while the river gives the intention of counterattacking during defense.

Once control of the opponent is obtained, especially if their balance is disrupted, then their ability to change, as well as their ability to focus (giving them too many tasks for their mind to deal with), is compromised. A practitioner can then focus on the specifics of their attack, implementing applications from their forms and interactive work.

Posted on September 5, 2016 by Dan Pasek in Training  on