Freya Lucy Elizabeth Cowin BSc (Hons) Psych, GMBPsS
Memory is a subject that is still very much contested and investigated by a myriad of different psychological, social, and neurological ontologies. Science cannot prove, but it can provide empirical evidence to support claims which seek to explain the biological processes involved in Memory; and how the scientific community thinks it works based on the evidence available at the time. This paper specifically uses biological psychological ontologies; Cognitive and Neuropsychology as T’ai Chi is arguably a cognitive and biological process.
To start to give context, memory as a biological process can be understood by a variety of empirically evidenced biological, developmental, and cognitive theories (Sheehy, 2016; Kaye and Tree, 2016). The basis of memory is understood as an event, stimulus, or knowledge, which is encoded within the brain, stored, and then retrieved later. Conscious memory has a variety of forms cognitively. Episodic memory refers to specific details of ones life. We also have Semantic and Spatial memories which are declarative (conscious recall). Unconsciously, we also have non-declarative learned skills like T’ai Chi, and explicit or implicit memories which are thought to influence who we are as individuals, and the way we portray ourselves socially within a shared society.
T’ai Chi, according to the evidence, starts off as a short-term spatial memory. Spatial, because your body is doing something physical, and you are moving around a physical environment. This spatial memory encodes (records) your ability to practice in a familiar location, facing a familiar way. When we change our environment, say by moving from your preferred spot in the hall to even a slightly different spot one meter away or by facing another direction, we effectively need to make a new spatial memory, regardless of having learned the movement successfully before (Kaye and Tree, 2016, Tulving, 1985, 2002).
When we first start learning a skill like T’ai Chi and storing spatial memories, we eventually move over from short term memory into long term memory. This can be described colloquially as muscle memory, procedural memory, or scientifically as nondeclarative memory. Nondeclarative memory is an explicit, or implicit memory that we hold, but do not consciously recall, like driving on “auto pilot.” Once you are a seasoned practitioner you will experience a stimulus (in this case, often the music, or “prepare”) and unconsciously your non declarative memory will activate, and you find yourself stepping to the left and sliding into eagle stance. This is true of all the movements as you learn them. However! Sometimes you will find similar movements activate your spatial short-term memory, confusing the stimulus, and you end up enacting a slightly different movement. This is normal, it is your executive function malfunctioning, meaning your nondeclarative memory attention has been diverted, and it tried to compensate with a declarative memory, albeit incorrectly. Remember, memory is FAR from infallible, it is highly subjective, and influenced by everything inside and around you at all times.
Executive function can be most easily described as your biological Random Access Memory which regulates cognitive functioning. Simply, our brain can only do so much at once, we physically cannot multitask (all genders) we can only flick our attention between tasks (Kae and Tree, 2016; McLeod, 2022). This becomes a challenge in T’ai Chi when we try to remember how to breathe properly, stances, posture, counting for seven, making our movements fluid, and remembering which movement is now and next to the Nth degree. Cognitive functions neurologically are an electrical communications network, and contention is a real thing when there’s too much communication in the brain! Those communications are enabled by mRNA which take signals from DNA (in this case muscles) to the relevant receiving cell (in this case neurons in a variety of brain regions) (Gaito, J,1963; Wang, 2012; Puthanveettil, 2013). When creating a declarative memory or recalling a nondeclarative memory, the mRNA (messenger neuron) is thought to build a set of proteins which represents those three movements you just learned. With practice those proteins are reinforced as they are recalled, and used, and recalled again; a strong protein (Neurogranin) formation is the nondeclarative memory, which is the unconsciously recalled T’ai Chi skills.
This change from declarative to non-declarative helps free up our executive function and allow us to learn more movements as our training progresses. That is also why, its important to learn movements correctly the first time, because its extremely hard to modify those proteins once established!
Finally, it’s salient to explain, that there are MANY regions of the brain that are activated during T’ai Chi, or indeed any physical or mental skill. Evidence suggests that the right/left brain theory maybe just a myth (Tree, 2015; Harrison. G, Ness. H and Pike. G 2016; Shmerling, 2022). This is because our brains are very Neuroplastic, meaning that if a part of it is damaged, we can and will adapt without it if there is enough brain left to reroute (Tree, 2015, 2016). Cognitive Neuropsychological research has investigated memory extensively, particularly Amnesia, Alzheimer’s, and other neurological conditions, and it is thought that depending on the type of memory, what it entails (where, who, when, what) there are interacting regions of the brain, rather than any one area which is recorded as activated under fMRI and BOLD assessments. Simply (though a little reductionist), T’ai Chi will likely be activating the Hippocampus and Medial Entorhinal Cortex (MEC) as they are key brain areas for spatial learning and memory. Place cells in Hippocampus fire whenever an animal is located in a specific region in the environment (explaining why changing our orientation during the form can be mind bending) (Grosberg and Pilly, 2012: Kaye and Tree, 2016).
In conclusion, the brain is and will be quite hard to understand until our technology becomes as clever as the brain itself, we can only make claims based on the evidence we have collected thus far, and much of that contradicts previous studies for a plethora of reasons not least because physiologically and psychologically we are all incredibly unique. But for the purpose of understanding T’ai Chi, it’s fine enough to know that our memories are encoded as deliberate conscious and spatial, with practice they become unconscious, less deliberate but easily confused if unfocused, and can be challenged not only with additional movements, breathing or vocalising (which uses our executive function) but with even a very slight change in environment.
Freya Lucy Elizabeth Cowin
BSc (Hons) Psych, GMBPsS
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