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Title [Voices of Youth] How do martial arts regulate the mind of youth toward health and well-being?
How do martial arts regulate the mind of youth toward health and well-being?
by Caio Amaral Gabriel
What could be behind the mental, socio-emotional, moral, and behavioral changes resulting from the practice of martial arts in young people? Although there is a modest amount of studies that demonstrate the positive effects of martial arts practice in the aforementioned aspects, the study of martial arts still faces a “black box” (UNESCO & UNESCO-ICM, 2019): little is known about what happens in the human organism that contributes to these changes. In this sense, “opening” the black box of martial arts can enhance the understanding of the role of martial arts for sustainability.
Would it be possible to find a common mechanism among the wide variety of martial arts? A consilient approach may be a promising way to answer this question. Consilience (Wilson, 1998) refers to the convergence of evidence from independent fields of knowledge, enabling robust conclusions. In this approach, one seeks to gain a broader perspective on martial arts by exploring the findings of independent fields of knowledge and identifying their commonalities, which can be a key to honoring the differences between the diversity of existing martial arts and then identifying common points that have universal applications between them.
Since the objective is to understand how martial arts influence the development of the mind, a key point of this investigation is to frame it from a definition of the mind. Would it be possible to obtain a consilient and working definition of the mind? Drawing on science of complexity, Siegel (2020) proposed that the mind is an embodied and relational, self-organizing emergent process that regulates the flow of energy and information both within and between. In this consilient view of the essence of the human mind, the mind is a process that emerges from internal neurophysiological processes of the distributed nervous system that extends throughout the body and also from external relational experiences in interpersonal, environmental, and cultural terms. What this proposal offers is a robust theoretical basis for investigating how the experience of martial arts practice can regulate the flow of energy and information from the system of mind of young people towards health and well-being. An important implication of this proposal is that the brain within the skull is only a source of the mind, not the sole provider of mental phenomena. In this way, the “extended mind” model (Clark, 2008) may be a more promising way to open the black box of martial arts than reducing the mind to brain activity according to the “brain bound” model.
Recently, when taking into account the embodied aspect of the mind, a growing body of studies has demonstrated how moving the body regulates the flow of energy and information in the system of mind (Paul, 2021). One implication of these studies is that the mind can be deliberately regulated toward health and well-being through the movement of the body, a common feature of martial arts. In neurophysiological terms, the body movement involved in martial arts practice involves increasing cardiac output through inhibition of the vagal brake and also increasing sympathetic influence on the heart (Lucas et al., 2016), not as a defensive mechanism, as reflected in fight-or-flight physiological states, but as a hormetic mechanism, in which the practice of martial arts has the potential to lead positive physiological adaptations in the organism (Radak, 2014; Stranahan & Mattson, 2009). Next, when taking into account the relational aspect of the mind, martial arts training involves sharing the flow of energy and information in many ways. The wide range of interpersonal interactions existing in the context of martial arts exercises what Porges (2011) calls ‘a social engagement system’ which stimulates reciprocal pro-sociality and the experience of attachment.
In this perspective, the particularities of each martial art can be respected and linked together under the consilient principle that martial arts involve an embodied and relational flow of energy and information that regulates the mind towards health and well-being. Indeed, martial arts are characterized by a hybrid physiological state of mobilization where there is a dynamic interaction in which the vagal brake is repeatedly inhibited to support body movement and then recovered in socially engaging behaviors, thus, exercising neural regulation of the autonomic nervous system (Lucas et al., 2016).
Over time, the body movements, positive emotions, and interpersonal connections involved in martial arts practice contribute to an upward spiral dynamic characterized by increased resting cardiac vagal tone. Increased cardiac vagal tone is a biological resource associated with numerous health benefits (Kok et al., 2013). First, increased resting vagal tone is associated with better executive functioning in terms of inhibitory control and working memory (Thayer & Lane, 2000; Thayer et al., 2009), two executive functions that have a causal relationship with the development of emotional competence (Li et al., 2020). Second, there is a correlation in which increased vagal tone may favor prosocial traits (Kogan et al., 2014). Third, individuals with a higher vagal tone tend to express wiser and less biased moral judgments from a self-distanced perspective (Grossman et al., 2016) and are less likely to base their moral judgments strictly on outcomes (Park et al., 2016). Fourth, vagal tone is an objective indicator of physical health (Kok et al., 2013) and a promising objective indicator of mental health (Perna et al., 2019). Thus, practicing martial arts represents an opportunity to strengthen cardiac vagal tone which can ultimately lead the practitioners to lasting health traits (Siegel, 2020).
Through the lens of consilience, the cardiac vagal tone may be a common mechanism underlying the mental, socio-emotional, moral, and behavioral changes in youth resulting from martial arts practice. With the proposal presented in this article, it is hoped that it can contribute to open the black box that martial arts community have not dealt with and to offer new perspective in understanding of martial arts.
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