Martial arts have been around for centuries and are considered the way to learn fighting or grappling skills for self-defense or sport. The dojo mat is open to any age, size, or shape of a human, and the techniques acquired can level the physical playing field against bigger opponents. But can martial arts up your mental game too and make you smarter?
Practicing a martial art has been shown to make a person smarter by enhancing the ability to focus, improving memory recall, and positively impacting the ability to think and react quickly. Studies have also shown a correlation between martial arts and higher cognitive function.
If you’re wondering about the effects of martial arts on your work performance or your child’s classroom success, let’s hit the mat together and find out if—and how—karate, taekwondo, or other martial arts might make you smarter.
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Can Martial Arts Make You Smarter?
It’s a known fact that certain activities benefit us in tangible ways. Walking or running regularly increases our cardiovascular fitness, and drinking milk provides many needed vitamins and nutrients.
Learning and practicing a martial art offers mental, as well as physical, and emotional benefits. The ability to free the mind of other thoughts allows the mind to absorb new lessons, thus increasing intellectual capacity.
The ancient masters intuitively knew this to be true, calling this form of meditation mushin in Japan and wu shen in China. Now the scientific community has begun to try and understand this concept as well.
How Do Martial Arts Make You Smarter?
To understand how practicing a martial art can make you smarter, you first have to understand the difference between intelligence and smartness:
- Intelligence is defined by Merriam-Webster as the “ability to apply knowledge to manipulate one’s environment or to think abstractly as measured by objective criteria (such as tests).”
- Smartness, as defined by Dictionary.com, means having “quick intelligence or ready mental capability.”
In other words, intelligence is knowing when and how to use our knowledge, while smartness is having the ability to use it as quickly as needed. So, exactly what do martial arts do that makes us smarter? Let’s review what the research has shown us.
Martial Arts Quiet the Mind and Improve the Ability to Focus
One of the basic tenets of any martial art is using the practice of the art to clear and quiet the mind, almost in a meditative fashion. With the mind free of distractions, there is room in the brain for new concepts and information.
This ability to focus can be improved by Attention State Training (AST). AST is about putting yourself into a quiet state of mind so that you can pay closer attention. Martial arts can be considered a form of AST.
A research study in Italy sought to correlate regular martial arts training with improved cognitive performance. Comparing a group of martial arts participants with a non-martial arts group, the study found, through a series of tests, that those who practiced a martial art performed better in the areas of creativity and attention.
In short, a quiet mind allows you to focus more attentively on the information you’re given and provides your brain the space it needs to internalize this data and add it to what you already know.
Martial Arts Enhance the Ability to Think and React Quickly
Those who practice a martial art know it’s critical to anticipate an opponent’s moves and be able to react swiftly and appropriately to the threat. How quickly and intelligently we think and react in a difficult situation is a measure of smartness.
Those same ancient masters who believed in mushin and wu chen were aware that the peaceful mind allows the brain to process things more quickly. It doesn’t take as much conscious thought and effort to know what to do or how to deal with a puzzling question or situation.
A 2015 study of 28 children proposed that taekwondo training could improve body intelligence and brain connectivity. Researchers assessed the two groups (those who practiced taekwondo and those who had never trained in the art) using the Body Intelligence Scale (BIS) and MRI scans of the brain. Those in the martial arts group were found to have more connectivity between the cerebellum and other parts of the brain.
Martial Arts Improve Memory
Memory is an important piece of the learning process. We are continually adding to our knowledge bank through intentional, formal study and planned and unplanned experiences. Knowing something at the moment is certainly worthwhile, but being able to recall details and facts later on—and apply them to a current situation—is key to living a successful life.
Studies have found that martial arts can positively impact a person’s memory and ability to quickly recall and apply what they know. And that is what makes us smart!
Scientists are particularly interested in studying memory in the elderly or those with dementia, but the findings can be applied to all ages. One study focused on the art of Tai Chi and how it might affect this particular population. The results suggested that Tai Chi has a positive impact on several areas of smartness:
- Remembering learned language skills.
- Learning new words.
- Remembering how to use words.
- Short-term memory.
And finally (for this article anyway), research in Italy found that karate improved the working memory of the test subjects. After practicing the martial art, group members were given a test that involved recalling a series of numbers—in order and backward—until the string got so big, that they could no longer memorize it.
Compared to those who didn’t do karate, the martial arts group performed better and showed higher memory recall.
Not only can learning and practicing a martial art teach you confidence and skills that can lead to an emotionally and physically fit lifestyle, but we also now know that it can improve our mental capacities as well.
Whether you want to be street-smart, book-smart, or both, regularly participating in martial arts can help you become smarter and ready for whatever the world sends your way!