Thursday, 10 February 2011

Tai chi emergence

I am fascinated by emergence and swarm intelligence. (An accessible "popular science" book for introducing the topic is "Out of Control" by Kevin Kelly). Whilst reading this book, I was reminded of the decentralised and emergent nature of the brain. In other words, the neurons of the brain behave in a similar way to bees in a hive. There is no centralised "you" or ego, thoughts and  thinking "emerge" out of the set of neurons firing. The emergent nature of the body and mind is the scientific meaning of the traditional Buddhist concept of the destruction of ego.

Neural networks, of which the brain is the ultimate example, are extremely adept at pattern matching, in fact I would go so far as to say it is their raison d'être. Pattern matching is what allows us to interpret the world without being overwhelmed by the data we're constantly being bombarded with from our senses.

In visual terms, this allows us to recognise objects and comprehend the space around us. We learn what a dog looks like, and the more dogs we see, the better we get at recognising them, irrespective of distance, colour, orientation etc. [As an aside recognising a dog is an extremely challenging task for a computer to accomplish, although we as humans take it for granted.] The pattern matching rules of vision are most famously exploited in what we call optical illusions.

In auditory terms, pattern matching allows us to understand speech and extract meaning from the varying tone and pitch of sound waves. Equally it allows us to enjoy and comprehend music, and recognise different styles and genres. Again speech and musical recognition and interpretation is very challenging for a computer.

But how does this relate to Tai chi? Well my supposition is that there is also a pattern matching associated with proprioception. Proprioception is what allows us to feel how our body moves and is orientated, and this is what we are (re)training when we do Tai chi. As you get better at tai chi, you get more astute at recognising the patterns of movement (In tai chi language, we call these the principles of tai chi). Aha you say, this rollback motion in move X is just like the rollback motion in move Y.... The spiralling of the hips is the same as the spiralling of the shoulders.... and so on. As you train more, you become more astute at recognising the patterns. Sequences of movements become natural and patterned. But what's more, they emerge in a distributed manner. In the beginning it is your conscious mind deliberately placing each of your limbs in particular positions. As your body begins to understand the patterns, it is almost as if the muscles of your body are moving independently (like individual bees), but the whole body is moving collectively (like the whole hive).

In practical terms as the body is an emergent system, without a centralised controller, the only way to program it is through chicken and egg iterative improvement (i.e. practice). Outwardly beginners and advanced students do the same training, it is just that inwardly, the advanced students understand more of the patterns. The beginner will therefore only be training the single exercise, where as the advanced student, seeing the connections and patterns (or principles), will be training hundreds of exercises simultaneously.

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