STEM of Tai Chi: Neurobiology



An illuminated neuron in a rat brain. Laboratory of Neurobiology | University of Helsinki


The body is electrical and quantum. All information is physical and requires matter to be expressed. Matter takes up space in your body. We all know practice makes us better. Neurobiology shows us why and how. Awareness of how the mind perceives and the body reacts to impulse as well as understanding the shadow gatekeeper will make you better at Tai Chi than just practice alone.
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The role of nerves in Tai Chi

We all of us know that the body – all life is electrical. We know that the brain and its many cortexes can control what our body does. But have you ever had the thought; “If I just do this new thing really slowly and with intense purpose and focus I can do it perfectly?” You probably did when you were a child. But we know better. We just don’t all know why we cannot do this. Nerves require four things to work precisely:

  1. a nerve mapping in the brain
  2. the correct nerve sequence to grow through time
  3. alignment of the nerves through time with the parts you are using
  4. communication and agreement with the three parts of the nervous system

As a novice I had to learn this truth the hard way. I had remap large parts of my brain just for the privilege of moving my paralyzed body in harmony again. This article I read all those years ago was quite helpful. Do not delude yourself that you are in control of your body. The you who is reading and the you who I am talking to are just the tip of the iceberg.

The secret gatekeeper and the iceberg effect

You are of four minds when we discuss nerves. Bear in mind that all information is physical. Every nerve regardless of how small it is takes up some space. There are hundreds of nerves in the body, and millions of nerve cells and the spread throughout the body. Of those miles and miles of nerves, you have control – active control – of less than 1/3 of them. That is how much control you are allowed to have over your body. The rest of your nerves are keeping you alive. Breathing, digesting, moving unconsciously, creating hormones, enzymes, proteins, endorphins and a thousand other things that if your conscious mind were to have to act on your CPU (ie conscious mind) would literally grind to a halt. When was the last time you thought about how many steps, muscle groups, nerves and organs are involved in the simple act of walking? Running? Move four different parts of your body? Do you remember the last time you tripped and were able to catch yourself? Was that you? Did you even think about that? The answer is no. This is the shadow gatekeeper.


The iceberg of the nervous system that is hidden. It is close to 1/8 of you total body mass. You have very little control over the shadow gatekeeper. The shadow gatekeeper ‘knows’ everything you will do. But it cannot communicate that to you. You don’t even know what your body is going to do from one millisecond to the next. We expect that we do, but study after study after study tells us we are not determinant after all. Monitoring the brain in fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) we can clearly see that the limb moving, the eye is darting, the sweat reaction response or the ability to make a decision to press a button happens milliseconds BEFORE the conscious brain “decides” that is what it is going to do.

Do not freak out about this. Is an absolute necessity that we evolved this response matrix. Subconscious thought is a massive amount of the activity that takes place in the brain. We evolved the ability to streamline that so that we don’t waste precious energy on functions that are an absolute requirement.

This system and its obvious and important implications is the reason we have to practice. You have to train the 1/3 of the neural mass that you can control to do what you need to do without interfering with the shadow gatekeeper (that has no ego and is not offended that your ego is seeking to master and control it). That brainstem we all share does not even know that the larger brain and the pre-frontal cortex exists. But YOU do and YOU need to be patient and persistent and open to learning.

Emotion: joy, happy, sad, pain, fear, stress, bliss, and breath

The secondary shadow unit is the ability to develop, act on and feel emotions. My neurotherapist at the Cleveland Clinic was very fond of referring to the human brain as an organic emotional supercomputer. He was so right. We have spoken at length about the role of the active, sensing and autonomic nervous systems. We have not touched on emotion. It is important at this point to talk about the types of emotion.

The role of emotion in the body. Jim Bruner | Mezzacello

Subjective experience emotion – these are your feelings, moods, and the database we keep on hand of the way we feel and what we are capable of feeling. Because this is essentially subjective and your ego will choose what emotions you feel and store, this is where the idea of mindfulness becomes very important. Tai Chi will be hard at first. It will get easier and soon it will be a mood enhancer.

Physiological response emotion – this is the shadow gatekeeper responding to your current emotional state. It is important that we realize we have control over our response to this. See the next emotional state. In times of stress, fear, and even joy, it can be useful to turn your searching mind off, and just let your body do something that will activate the hidden gatekeeper’s ability to regulate our emotions. Let it simmer if you will.

Behavioral response emotions – if you know any toddlers or just passive aggressive or very angry people you can imagine this emotional state. We all of us act out according to this emotional response mechanism. When you want to react, it is a useful skill to let your body do something, and tp practice and try to get better. Use your access to the 1/3 of your neurobiology to improve.

Practice and muscle memory

So what is muscle memory really? It is the three components of our objective and subjective neurobiology:

  1. The knowledge of what must be done with the body
  2. The ability to use both the active Central and the Autonomic and Peripheral nervous systems to move
  3. The ability to create positive feedback, physically and emotionally to do something

This is why one must practice. That’s a lot to ask from a body. It is not going to happen immediately. Careful attention must be paid to the form, the reasoning and rationale for why the body placement and energy must be just so. I love to tune out my emotions and just be in a time stream where I can think about anything I want while my body just does its thing in peace.

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