Russell Poldrack, a neuroscientist at the University of California at Los Angeles, has conducted a number of brain-imaging experiments to trace the transition from explicit to implicit monitoring that occurs over many hours’ practice. He has discovered that the prefrontal cortex is activated when a novice is learning a skill, but that control of the stroke switches over time to areas such as the basal ganglia, which is partly responsible for touch and feel. This migration from the explicit to the implicit system of the brain has two crucial advantages. First, it enables the expert player to integrate the various parts of a complex skill into one fluent whole something that would be impossible at a conscious level because there are too many interconnecting variables for the conscious mind to handle. And second, it frees up attention to focus on higher-level aspects of the skill such as tactics and strategy. This transition between brain systems can be most easily understood by thinking about what happens when you learn to drive a car. When you start out, you have to focus intently in order to move the gear stick while keeping the steering wheel in the right place, pushing on the clutch, and keeping an eye on the road. At the beginning these tasks are so difficult to execute simultaneously that the instructor usually starts you off in a car park and slowly helps you to integrate the various elements. Only after some hours practise can these various skills be performed effortlessly, without any conscious control, so that you are now able to arrive at your destination without even being aware of how you got there, your mind having been on other things. Your skills have moved from the explicit to the implicit, from the conscious to the unconscious, and your ability has graduated. These are the skills that allow the Tai Chi practitioner to perform their routine with such flow and precision. Initially the Tai Chi students focus is on perfecting the various hand, arm and leg movements. After many hours of practise these are integrated into the unconscious. Now attention moves to the flow i.e. blending the movements into one harmonious structure.

As a teacher I have been privileged to witness this marvel on many occasions; watching a group of experienced Tai Chi enthusiasts practising, seeing them harmonising their Tai Chi together as one flowing majestic movement. Confirming to the beholder, that with concentration and a willing heart all people can work together to lift the spirit so we can live together peacefully.

There are other aspects of Tai Chi practise that deepen the understanding on a personal and group level but these are best learnt through attending a class conducted by an experienced teacher. Many of these attributes unfold themselves gradually over the years.

The dedicated hours of practise are also an absolute requirement to gain a high level of skill in the art of I Fu Shou (Sticky Hands), too.

Check out Howard’s Article: Tai Chi/Pushing Hands

Recommended Reading: Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice HarperCollins Publishers. Available on Amazon Books


About the Author Howard Gibbon

Howard, who was a student of the late Grand Master Chee Soo for 21 years has been practicing and teaching the Lee Style of Tai Chi and related arts since 1973.