Wednesday, January 30, 2019

How Moo Sul Kwan Taekwondo Actually Influences our Brain

By Irene Kim, red belt

Given the anatomical background of our brains, I would like to describe how I believe we are changing our brains for the better when we practice Moo Sul Kwan Taekwondo.  It has to do with more recent research into the concept of neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to form and reorganize synaptic connections in response to learning or experience.  In the earlier half of the 20th century, it was thought that the adult brain was relatively fixed, that not much happened after a certain age.  Since then,research has uncovered how numerous parts of the brain can in fact change, even into adulthood.

Let’s first define the concept of learning. The general definition is “…to acquire skills and alter behavior as a result of experience.” Delving deeper, “Skill learning is defined here as a change, typically an improvement, in perceptual, cognitive, or motor performance that comes about as a result of training and that persists for several weeks or months, thus distinguishing it from effects related to adaptation or other short-lived effects.”[1] This definition is relevant to the extended course of progress in MSK TKD: We know it takes dedication, effort and time.

There are many components of learning that have been studied and are applicable to our training.  These include the difficulty of the task being learned, motivation of the learner, the frequency and type of feedback provided, individual variables, and generalization to other areas.  It is clear that our MSK TKD task is involved and challenging, yielding benefit and extension into all areas of our lives.  It is a multi-level, complex, detailed physical study.  We are always learning something new.

Thus, I believe there are a myriad of neuronal benefits, including increasing the size, capacity, and function of our brains.  I also believe new neurons may be created, as well as improving the strength of communication between existing ones.

Increasing the size of our brains

Perhaps the most striking idea is that Moo Sul Kwan Taekwondo may actually be growing our brains, no matter what age we are.  It is the increased cellular connections, or neurons talking more,that can make the brain grow in size as we learn. This has been demonstrated in people who learned to juggle by something called diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), which measures white matter microstructure.  subjects literally increased the size of their parietal lobes.[2]  The reason I mention juggling is because it is a complex visual-motor skill and involves intense coordination, similar to TKD.   Interestingly, these studies demonstrated that the improvement happened regardless of how good the subjects were at juggling, that it was the learning process that was important for brain development.  Anatomical changes in grey matter from the processing and storage of complex visual motionwere also documented.[3]

Increasing the capacity and function of our brains as relates to Grandmaster Park’s Model Concept

As discussed previously, to learn at all levels of our training, we must have specific and focused attention.  This directed mental effort (cognitive domain) leads to “…the brain’s potential to correct its own flaws and enhance its own capacities”[4] We can newly wire and re-wire our brains.  New synapses are formed and synaptic strength at certain junctions is increased, both of which are believed to underlie learning.

Level One (White to Orange Belt)

When we are in class for the first time, our visual systems (occipital lobe) are working hard to process moves we have never seen.  At the same time, our auditory centers (temporal lobe) are hearing and making sense of the new instructions and Korean words.  Our parietal and frontal lobes are processing these instructions to perform the new movements.  New pathways are connecting as we learn the respect of body contact and our fellow students.

Level Two (Green to Blue Belt)

As we advance in our training, the basic information has been processed into our long-term memory.  We now know and recall moves and demonstrate motor learning (‘muscle memory’), a form of procedural memory that involves consolidating a specific motor task into memory through repetition.  We are doing this increasingly as we perform more and more poomse, self-defense, one-step and sparring moves.   As movements are repeated over time, more long-term muscle memories are created,allowing more movements of poomse to be performed without conscious effort.  The various areas of learning begin to depend more and more on one another. We cannot learn more complicated moves if we cannot visually or auditorily process [5]and recall the previous ones.

Level Three (Purple to Red Belt)

As we engage in deeper self-directed learning, we are promoting self-directed neuroplasticity.  The specific details and strategies of movements in sparring, poomse, and breaking may be ones we had not previously focused on in the earlier levels.  We attend more specifically to our practice, thus increasing the size of our brain’s representation of specific body surfaces and muscles when we follow through with instruction; Our brains are further enhancing. As we think about the moves more and gain more in-depth understanding of them, I envision the connections within the frontal lobe becoming stronger and more numerous.

Level Four (1st dan and up)

The model concept allows our instructors to focus on what may be important for a student at any level of training.  The frontal lobes are at work with planning, making decisions and integrating details.  Perhaps with each new student, new neurons are born (neurogenesis) with corresponding new pathways.  The intense learning and consolidation into long-term memory that has happened at this level occurred through intense brain activity and enhancement.   A fascinating endeavor would be to obtain brain imaging of an individual on day one of TKD and a follow-up scan as a Black Belt.   I believe we would see a bigger brain with many more of those colorful, increasingly active pathways.


In conclusion, I hope I have provided some interesting insights into the neurophysiology of our Moo Sul Kwan Taekwondo practice with CTI.  Intense neuronal activity is continually happening in our brains as we delve deeper into the Psychomotor, Affective and Cognitive Domains. This activity happens not only during actual classes and events, but also when we practice and think deeper about the moves at home or elsewhere.   As our practice extends to all areas of our lives, we are utilizing these neuronal processes more and more throughout our days.

Perhaps you have consciously or subconsciously felt these changes by having better attention and energy, better time management and organization, and better overall mental clarity.  The motor pathways have strengthened along with our bodies.  All of this is a result of how our brains have grown.  Every detail of improvement has been facilitated by the networks we have created and strengthened in our brains as we grow to higher levels of mastery in the fascinating Martial Art of Moo Sul Kwan Taekwondo.

[1] Green, C.S. and Bavelier, D. (2008). Exercising Your Brain: A Review of Human Brain Plasticity and Training-Induced Learning. Psychol Aging. Dec; 23(4): 692–701.

[2] Scholz, J.; Klein, MNat Neurosci. 2009 Nov; 12(11): 1370–1371. Training induces changes in white matter architecture. Jan Scholz,1,*Miriam C. Klein,1Timothy E.J. Behrens,1,2 and Heidi Johansen-Berg1

[3] Neuroplasticity: changes in grey matter induced by training.Draganski B, Gaser C, Busch V, Schuierer G, Bogdahn U, May A. Nature. 2004 Jan 22; 427(6972):311-2.

[4] Schwartz, J.M. and Begley, S. (2002). The Mind and The Brain. Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force.

[5] Simultaneous Processing of Information on Multiple Errors in Visuomotor Learning Shoko Kasuga, Masaya Hirashima, Daichi Nozaki. August
29, 2013