by Elisabeth Nations
In Chapter 7 of The Encultured Brain, Dr. Pettinen presents a case study on Taijutsu, a form of Japanese martial arts that is explicitly focused on perception rather than bodily movement and muscle memory. Taijutsu emphasizes the synchronization of the body and mind so that a person moves in relation to another person in the most efficient and seamless way possible. Taijutsu is based on an epistemology of the body that is very different from the general epistemological understanding of the body in North America, and this is best illustrated by the practice of sakki, an activity tests the practitioner’s ability to stay concentrated and relaxed while judging a very small amount of physical stimulus to determine when to react. Overall, sakki proves Taijutsu’s emphasis on feeling rather than doing or seeing. This is very different from our North American reliance on visual cues and muscle memory – while muscle memory might help the practitioner roll out from under the sword cut, sakki is much more about being able to perceive the movement of the sword.
Taijutsu practitioners do practice repetitive movements as a way of learning the sport, but this is not the focus. Instead, the person being attacked must maintain the most focus on perceiving their environment. As one advanced Taijutsu practitioner described, “It’s not about the repetition. You have to learn the feeling of it” (Pettinen 206).
Pettinen argues that because Taijutsu is so much about perception, an fMRI might reveal that expert Taijutsu practitioners actually have a reduction in brain activity compared to novice practitioners because they may have less neural scaffolding than in a novice focused on obtaining muscle memory. I very much disagree with this, as it seems to me that there is far more brain activity involved in observing, measuring, and evaluating a hundred minute aspects of one’s environment and then picking the correct form of muscle memory than in just relying on muscle memory based on the observation of less stimuli.
In her conclusion, Pettinen suggests that sensation is much more important in having physical skill than in muscle memory and motor skills. She argues that motor skills are only useful when there are used as an extension of what we perceive. I think her assertions are true in part. In certain activities, like martial arts, perception is much more important than just repetition because one is engaging with another person and responding to their actions. In other scenarios, I believe motor skills may be much more important than sensation, like when weight-lifting. Picking up a bar and engaging your muscles to lift it doesn’t require much perception at all, but it still demonstrates a great depth of physical skill. I think that most of the time people must maintain a balance between muscle memory and perception when engaging in physical activity. In ballet, a dancer must perform the movements she’s spent hours committing to memory, but she must also vary her movements to complement the music and the other dancers. In a much more basic example, when we walk every day, the act of walking is based on muscle memory, but we must adapt that movement according to changes in our environment, like a steep hill, an incoming crowd of people, etc.
Pettinen presents a very interesting example of how our understanding of the body affects movement, how movement relates to perception, and how the balance between the two can be seen neurologically. While I don’t agree with some of her statements about how Taijutsu affects the brain, I appreciate how she analyzes and compares the cultural aspects of people’s understanding of the body, even if her evidence for how these epistemologies come into place are somewhat unsubstantiated.