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Science & The Martial Arts

News and research that provide insight and understanding of the martial arts and related activities.

Grasping The Big Picture

By Christopher Caile

Age, it turns out, does have a least one physical advantage over youth – the ability to grasp the big picture visually.

Research has shown that older people have improved skill in tracking peripheral movement. This translates to being able to comprehend the total image of events unfolding around them better – tracking movement, things and people around them. This allows them to potentially perform better in some situations.

This skill gives you an advantage in a multi-person confrontation. It can also make you more aware of potential dangers on the street since you are more aware of things around you. It also translates into an advantage in team sports such as basketball, football or hockey.

This finding came out of a research that studied the effects of aging on the human brain. Youthful college students were tested against older adults in their 60s and 70s. The study was conducted in Canada (Ontario), at McMaster’s University, by psychology Ph.D. students Lisa Betts and Christopher Taylor along with Profs. Allison Sekuler and Patrick Bennett. The study was published in a recent issue of Neuron (Feb. 05).

In one test they measured how quickly subjects processed information on the sideways movement of vertical bars seen on the screen of a computer. Younger subjects took less time in detecting sideways motion when the bars were small, or were low in contrast, but when the bars were large and in high contrast, older subjects performed better.

Patrick Bennet, the second senior author, noted that this indicated a difference in how signals are processed in the younger versus older brain. The difference was attributed to changes in brain chemistry (that can also make older adults perform more poorly in some tasks) – possibly lower levels of y-aminobutyrate (GABA), an inhibitory neurotransmitter used in the brain for communication (that work by inhibiting neuro-signals). The difference in brain chemistry allows younger brains to filter out clutter, or non-useful information within a field of vision. In short: as we age, brain cells have reduced capacity to inhibit each other.

As people age, noted Bennett, it is more difficult for them to concentrate on any single thing and ignore everything else. The benefit for older people, it turns out, is that they become more visually aware to everything around them.

In contrast, children and young adults have a much higher level of this neurotransmitter. This allows them to isolate something specific within a complicated field of visual objects, but at the same time it makes it harder for them to tune in to the clutter itself.

This author has observed that his two young sons are faster than he is at selecting the appropriate puzzle piece from many on the floor. They can also look at their room cluttered with toys and quickly find just what they were looking for. This is probably the same chemistry at work.

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About The Author:

Christopher Caile is the Founder and Editor-In-Chief of He has been a student of the martial arts for over 43 years. He first started in judo. Then he added karate as a student of Phil Koeppel in 1959. Caile introduced karate to Finland in 1960 and then hitch-hiked eastward. In Japan (1961) he studied under Mas Oyama and later in the US became a Kyokushinkai Branch Chief. In 1976 he followed Kaicho Tadashi Nakamura when he formed Seido karate and is now a 6th degree black belt in that organization's honbu dojo. Other experience includes aikido, diato-ryu aikijujutsu, kenjutsu, kobudo, Shinto Muso-ryu jodo, kobudo, boxing and several Chinese fighting arts including Praying mantis, Pak Mei (White Eyebrow) and shuai chiao. He is also a student of Zen. A long-term student of one branch of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Qigong, he is a personal disciple of the qi gong master and teacher of acupuncture Dr. Zaiwen Shen (M.D., Ph.D.) and is Vice-President of the DS International Chi Medicine Association. He holds an M.A. in International Relations from American University in Washington D.C. and has traveled extensively through South and Southeast Asia. He frequently returns to Japan and Okinawa to continue his studies in the martial arts, their history and tradition. In his professional life he has been a businessman, newspaper journalist, inventor and entrepreneur.

To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

perception, visual field, martial arts and perception, Zanshin, martial arts

Read more articles by Christopher Caile

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