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Kata: Beneficial in Martial art?

By Rafael H. Gutierrez, MD

Background: Brain basics: Table 1







Psychology/ Medicine

James Williams, MD wrote how the brain might change as a result of experiences.

Learning might lead to physical changes in the brain.



Broadmann mapped certain areas of the brain according to their functions

Finds that there is an area that is involved in learning movements.


Psychology/ Physiology

Ivan Pavol introduced “Classical conditioning;” Saliva production can be stimulated in dogs

Shows that a reflex reaction could be taught, but also if not continued the learned patterns would eventually be extinct as a behavior.


Biology (cell molecular)

Francis Crick gave a speech addressing the “Central Dogma”

Explains how cells make proteins by using DNA.


Psychology/ Neurophysio

Di Pellegrino, et al, wrote an article on Mirror neuro system

It is suggested that some brain cells act to interpret actions and learn by mimicry.


Biology/ Neuroscience

The mirror neuron system (MNS) is found to be “… activated not only when performing an action oneself, but also while observing someone else perform that action. It is believed mirror neurons increase an individual’s ability to understand the behaviors of others… they apparently code not current actions, but some aspect of future ones.”1

…action observed within a familiar context activates mirror neurons for “logically related” actions, those that most likely will follow the observed one… the mirror neuron system is intimately involved not only with understanding the behavior of others, but predicting it as well.”1



Draganski, et al, wrote that during a period of learning, there was an increase of the gray matter in the brain.

As we learn, our brain change so learning involves physical connections in the brain.


              Prearranged movements, seen in the Kata in Japanese and Okinawan traditions, Pythic Tradition in Sparta, and the martial dances of the India, all have long documented histories. In many schools, they are the essence of martial arts. Modern scientific information presents overwhelming evidence that the practices of Kata are extremely valuable. Kata may even lead to the body moving under sub-conscious control, almost a Mushin state. Benefits were not limited to fighting and teaching, Kata may have the ability to expand the usefulness of the mind.



              At the end of World War II, Japan was in an economic depression. This, along with a weak central government, led some to turn to crime in the hopes of survival. Some cities were overrun by organized crime. This was the turmoil era that Motobu Chōki and his students dealt with during their existence. One night, as Motobu and one of his student walked across a bridge, a gang closed off both sides of the bridge and attacked them. Motobu quickly knocked out and threw these attackers off the bridge then returned to his conversation as if nothing had happened. His student asked when he would learn what Motobu had done. Motobu could not remember but if the student could tell him, he would. Motobu had moved without thinking only reacted to the attack.  That story is universal in traditional martial arts. In a paper about the benefits of Kata in self-defense, it is worthwhile to review the story.


Learning new skills:

It is no surprise that “…repeated training day in and day out…”2 is needed for “…the mastering of any sport.”2 Use of specific muscles is needed to learn skills as it causes changes in the brain, which are needed for the memory to have a “… lasting ability of performing highly skilled movements.”3 When learning a kata, students continuously do the moves to get the techniques correct. This leads to a mechanical precision of all skills within the form.

Beyond the regular practice, Kata is a pattern and “…[t]he brain is a “pattern-detecting device,” aggressively searching for those patterns which will help give meaning to new or incoming stimuli”3 If drills are done without a pattern, “… the incoming information will likely be discarded…”3 Learning a Kata causes the repetition of techniques and combinations which if,“…repeated often, are skills that have the greatest likelihood of developing elaborate neural connections that become almost impervious to destruction.4

When learning, beginners imitate more advanced martial artists. This triggers three mechanisms; the View-Point Transformation (VPT) “… performs a “rotation” to align the demonstrator’s body to that of the learner…”5, the Visuo-Motor Map (VMM), “…Maps this visual information to motor data…” 5, The Gesture imitation, “…allows the system to recognize and generate its own interpretation of observed gestures to produce similar gestures/goals at a later stage.”5 When practiced, Kata strengthen memory pathways making them easier to access later by changing the brain. This is because making new “… information into long-term storageis new protein synthesis-dependent…”6


Re-enforcing learning:

Once learned, Kata can be practiced when injured by watching because in brain scans, “…brain regions classically associated with both action simulation and action observation were active…”.7 Watching the Kata, “…can support sequence learning, which… [is] equivalent performance as that of a group who made motor responses during training…” .8

When Kata are learned, students have an easier time learning more advanced skills. This is because the brain uses“… pre-existing knowledge with reinforcement learning methods for value function estimation in order to make learning faster…9


Faster reactions and predicting opponents:

Kata makes the martial artist react faster as “…decision making requires either comparing current sensory information with that showed recently or with that recovered from long-term memory (LTM).”10 In self-defense, actions are based on the Kata memories triggered.

The reasoning is that “…the human MNS is specialized not only for processing animate stimuli, but specifically stimuli with social relevance.”11  In the case of an attack, a martial artist who practices Kata can predict the movements of an attacker based on his studies. The brain determines what “…action is typically followed by a subsequent specific motor act…observing an action carried out in a specific context recalls the chain of motor acts that typically is carried out in that context to actively achieve a goal.12

“[G]iven a prior expectation about the goal of the person we are observing, we can predict their motor commands. Given their motor commands we can predict the kinematics on the basis of our own action system.13



              Kata has many benefits because: (1) It gives a pattern needed to make learning techniques easier.   (2) They can be viewed by students to cement memories. (3) They can lead to progress using the known patterns to add more techniques. (4) They give a pattern that is needed to make learning easier by watching more advanced persons.   (5) They are used by the mind to react, something likened to the no-mind. (6) They cause faster reactions based on Kata learned so Kata practitioner does not have to think about what to do next, and (7) They give the ability to predict the movements of opponents based on Kata movements.



              Many believe it is possible to reach the “No-mind” or Mushin, a moving without thinking. Takuan that the swordsman should, “…not to think of the opponent, nor of himself, nor of his enemy’s sword movements… [he] is ready only to follow the dictates of the subconscious. The man has effaced himself as the wielder of the sword. When he strikes, it is not the man but the sword in the hand of the man’s subconscious that strikes.”14 Kata could be the key to reaching this.

              Evidence suggests that practicing Kata, offers martial artist many benefits. With the martial artist able to read the opponent or attacker’s intent, then moving using sections of forms without having to process. It is not a large jump to suggest that the practice of Kata can lead to a Mushin, or no-mind like, state as seen in the introduction.



              Many benefits are found from learning patterns. Most articles suggested the use and memorization of patterns for help in rehabilitation after any other loss of function. This is based on the minds ability to rewire itself when damaged. The more connections the brain has before injury, the easier it can rewire itself.

Based both on the learning cycles of the brain and the Mirror Neuron System (MNS), Kata practice may be useful as an adjunct treatment for conditions seen in children. Autism, thought to be due to deficient Mirror Neurons might benefit from Kata training by strengthening the MNS already present. Attention Deficiency Disorder may benefit as Kata can aid in the usage and rewiring of the mind while using different parts of the brain to keep their attention.

While using martial arts as a non-pharmaceutical adjunct to certain brain-based conditions may seem practical, and are supported by anecdotal evidence; so far, there has not been an organization that has done the research to confirm nor deny any benefits.


  1. (no authors listed) Predicting the Future: Mirror Neurons Reflect the Intentions of Others. PLoS Biol. 2005 Mar;3(3):
  2. Nielsen, Jens Bo and Cohen, Leonardo G, “The olympic brain. Does corticospinal plasticity play a role in acquisition of skills required for high-performance sports?”   J Physiol. 2008 January 1; 586(Pt 1): 65–70.
  3. Oberman, Lindsay M., Pineda, Jaime A., Ramachandran, Vilayanur S., “The human mirror neuron system: A link between action observation and social skills,” Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2007 March; 2(1): 62–66.
  4. Lopes M, Santos-Victor J., “Visual learning by imitation with motor representations” IEEE Trans Syst Man Cybern B Cybern. 2005 Jun;35(3):438-49.
  5. Lopes M, Santos-Victor J., “Visual learning by imitation with motor representations” IEEE Trans Syst Man Cybern B Cybern. 2005 Jun;35(3):438-49.
  6. Harris, D. V., & Robinson, W. J. “The effect of skill level on EMG activity during internal and external imagery.” Journal of Sport Psychology, (1986). 8, 105-111
  7. Cross, Emily S., Hamilton, Antonia F. de C., and Grafton , Scott T.   “Building a motor simulation de novo: Observation of dance by dancers” Neuroimage. 2006 July 1; 31(3): 1257–1267.
  8. Song, Sunbin, Howard, James H., Jr., and Howard, Darlene V. “Perceptual sequence learning in a serial reaction time task” Exp Brain Res. 2008 August; 189(2): 145–158.
  9. Främling K., “Guiding exploration by pre-existing knowledge without modifying reward.” Neural Netw. 2007 Aug;20(6):736-47. Epub 2007 Feb 12
  10. Pardo-Vazquez, Jose L. , Leboran, Victor and Acuña, Carlos, A role for the ventral premotor cortex beyond performance monitoring” Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2009 November 3; 106(44): 18815–18819.
  11. Oberman, Lindsay M., Pineda, Jaime A., Ramachandran, Vilayanur S., “The human mirror neuron system: A link between action observation and social skills,” Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2007 March; 2(1): 62–66.
  12. Lacoboni, Marco, Molnar-Szakacs, Istvan,   Gallese, Vittorio, Buccino, Giovanni, Mazziotta, John C , and Rizzolatti, Giacomo, “Grasping the Intentions of Others with One’s Own Mirror Neuron System” PLoS Biol. 2005 March; 3(3): e79.
  13. Kilner, James M. ,   Friston, Karl J., and Frith, Chris D. “Predictive coding an account of the mirror neuron system” Cogn Process. 2007 September; 8(3): 159–166.
  14. Soho, Takuan. The Unfettered Mind. Trans. William Scott Wilson. Tokyo: Kodansha International Ltd., 1986.

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