Quantifying the Unthinking Mind
I have long been fascinated by the parallels between modern neuroscience and the old wisdom on martial training. Seven months ago I joined a website called Lumosity. It provides daily "workouts" for your brain.
I have read numerous accounts as to whether such brain exercises improve cognitive function in general or only specifically to the exercises themselves. But experts agree that there's no harm to doing such exercises so I adopted them and began making Lumosity part of my daily regimen. It takes about 10 minutes each day and I usually do it right when I get into the office each morning. Since then, I've experienced a few things I think are worth sharing:
First, sleep is really, really important. Every morning the site asks me how much sleep I got and my general mood. Over the weeks, a correlation between good moods and a good night's sleep became abundantly clear. Related, I generally find I perform better with the various exercises - achieving more "personal best" scores - on the nights I've slept 7+ hours.
The second realization was that my brain works faster when I don't try so hard. A lot of Lumosity's games are about neuroplasticity, switching skills, reaction times, short-term memory, and managing multiple stimulus simultaneously. Many of these functions we also use in training at the dojo which is why they have appealed to me.
If you read up on neuroscience, thought processes happen in two modalities - an instinctive "System 1" and a more considered "System 2". They work as a checks and balances and are a product of evolution. (They can also lead us to make many judgement errors, but that's a topic for another post.) Students coming to Aikido begin learning in System 2. It is intellectual, linear, thoughtful and in the beginning, appropriate for understanding mechanics. It is also slow. As we practice, we eventually must learn to let go of System 2 and let System 1 take over. This is much like learning to ride a bike. In the beginning relaxing is not an option and our body tenses because we're trying so hard. The bike wobbles and we slowly learn the basics of balance. Eventually, with experience, we settle in and learn to ride without conscious focus. Things smooth out, we can carry on conversations and other mental tasks as we pedal. Transitioning certain skills into System 1 thinking allows us spontaneously and correctly make assessments and move fast and fluid. Making this transition, however, takes a lot of work. Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers posits that someone need 10,000 hours of experience to generate this kind of instinctual expertise. Do the math. That's a lot of time on the mat.
I found that with Lumosity the harder I consciously tried the worse I did. Often times, especially in memory exercises, I'd have an instinctual response that I would override with a rational analysis. When I did this, I was mostly wrong. When I pushed the rationalization away and went instead with the instinct that "feels right", I found myself mostly right.
Obviously this is not a universal law, but for certain tasks our brain perceives, store and creates a response to stimulus much fast than we are conscious of.
Lumosity has illustrated to me another way of understanding emptying the mind. In this instance, it is not burdening it with rational analysis but rather trusting it to intuit well. As mentioned before, developing this intuition takes years of continual effort such that the brain and body learn from many, many, many rehearsed scenarios. I struggle with this continually, especially as I am prone to analytical thinking. But awareness is a step in the right direction and the analytical thinker in me has taken some comfort in seeing how today's leading edge neuroscience is only now "discovering" what many great teachers of centuries ago instinctively knew already.
So get your sleep. Commit to your practice. Put in your time. Be patient. Do these things and you're well on your way.