The Science of Shaolin-Do Forms Training

As many of you know, I received my Ph.D. in neurophysiology in 1997, at UT Austin. Since that time I have missed science somewhat, but have always looked at Shaolin-Do training with a scientific method. I have used this background to model our training and progressive approach, and as you'll see in the following article, I have used it to validate the wisdom of our Shaolin anscestors. So sit back and allow me to flex my "science muscle" a little and make sure I don't forget everything I spent $50,000 to learn.
Dr. Joseph Schaefer (master doctor, or doctor master)

A Reflex

You step on a thumbtack and immediately jerk your foot up without thinking. A moment later you feel pain and say "Ouch". This is called a reflex and does not require conscious intervention. The actual muscle commands for the action originate in the spinal cord and only send the signal to your brain as an 'after-thought'. Now wouldn't you love to react this way to every sparring situation? Imagine sparring at reflex speed. Well this is why we study katas. I know that Bruce Lee hated classical kata training, but sorry Bruce, science is against you on this (I'll explain shortly).

P.E.T. (positron emission topography)

Sounds like Star Trek science doesn't it? Well it's not; it is very real and has been used for well over a decade. After having a person ingest radioactive glucose (not dangerous), you then monitor the decay of a positron as glucose is metabolized in the active waking brain. You do this with a big super cooled super conducting helmet and a lot of money.

Using this method researchers have found that the waking brain is activated in much the same ways by either a real stimulus or an imagined one. Well since we get better at tasks by practicing them, this implies that the brain connections can be strengthened by imagining that you are practicing tasks.

Hebbian learning (or neurons that fire together, wire together)

The Heb (D. Hebb) theory of learning is based on the concept of associative learning. When you associate two events closely enough together in time with enough repetition, the neuronal connections between areas of the brain involved will be strengthened. (Pavlovian conditioning, you know the slobbering dogs) Here's an example of two events you might want to associate together; an opponent's roundhouse kick moving toward your head, and you dropping low to the ground and sweeping their standing leg while ducking below the kick.

In a sane training environment, katas are the only way to train the deadly techniques that one needs to survive. At NO time in history could a person practice a knee or elbow break hundreds of time a day, each time with deadly force against a partner. Instead, the monks created forms and visualized both the stimulus and response for every conceivable attack. Stimulus-Response, over and over again. The science of associative conditioning applied to fighting.


1.         Reflexes are orders of magnitude faster than conscious thought.

2.         Visualization can activate the exact same brain centers as the 'real thing'.

3.         Kata practice uses visualization to associate the stimulus and response of fight situations.

4.         Reflexes can be 'hardwired' by associating (connecting) activity in different brain centers.

5.         Katas can rewire your basic fighting reflexes. BUT only if you practice focused visualization during practice.

Special Note:

Grandmaster once told a group of us about a technique used to slow time during a fight. Actually he explained that the monk would speed their mental processes up so much that the opponent seemed to be moving in slow speed.

The technique:

While meditating you visualize an attack and the response you are interested in using reflexively. At a point when you can visualize 100 attacks and responses in the span of one inhale and exhale you were able to 'slow' time. When someone threw a punch, it would seem slow because your mind now moves so fast that you mentally could have responded to 20 punches by then. While 100 is a pretty extreme number to reach, I have found that even 5 responses per inhale-exhale produce a change in abilities. Remember, your brain doesn't care whether or not you are actually doing the thing or just visualizing it.

So be proud of our katas and practice them with the belief that they will give you the skill you seek.

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