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Mixed Martial Arts and the Evolution of the Fighting Brain

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Mixed Martial Arts and the Evolution of the Fighting Brain


Mixed Martial Arts and the Evolution of the Fighting Brain

It seems that when many people view combat sports and mixed martial arts, they see the physical skill as something separate to – and even the opposite of – intellectual talents. They think of the typical meathead, someone who is strong but not clever – who can outmuscle someone but not outsmart them.



Fighting is often viewed by the layman as the antithesis of a cerebral pursuit – as one where people use their physical attributes to gain advantages and dominate their opponent, while somehow lacking any ‘higher’ thinking. Those who practice the arts know better. Their intricacies present just as much intellectual and psychological challenges as physical ones.


For that reason experienced practitioners develop strength and flexibility of mind which often surpasses that of their body, and many people will preach such benefits over how fit, strong or agile it has made them. We often see the effects martial arts have on our minds and those of others – and how they can increase not just physical strength – but even mental sharpness, problem solving skills and strength of character.


Many of us experience the benefits training has on our mental health, but now we can look at why that might be, and just how deep this effect goes. It can be surprising to see how these arts are not only mentally beneficial, but possibly one of the very best things we can do for the health and performance of arguably our most important organ – the brain.




To explore this, we will need to go back – billions of years back – to why we even have a brain at all. As humans we are able to do the things which separate us from animals – complex communication, scientific investigation, writing, art, abstract thought – and we consider these as the purpose of our brains.


Even the word ‘brainy’ means to have a high level of ability in these areas, and being intellectual is often seen as being at odds with being athletic. This attitude stems from the dualistic idea that mind and body are somehow two separate parts, an idea which turns out to be as far from the truth as possible- they are in fact inextricably linked. As Moshe Feldenkrais said – “A brain without a body could not think”.



From an Evolutionary standpoint, the reason the first animals developed nervous systems – and later brains – is so they can move around their environment. Organisms develop senses to gain information about the surroundings, and guide that movement accordingly. On a basic level this means find food – eat food – avoid being food – reproduce.


Further on from this, the reason advanced thinking originally developed is to gain a better understanding of how to modify our movement, from hunting tactics and self defence – to building, creating, planning, interacting, influencing and outsmarting. Even language is (amongst other things) a result of our ability to finely control the movements of our mouth, breath and vocal cords.


These movement centred brain structures give rise to the development of our ‘higher’ abilities – abstract thought, philosophy, the sciences and art. So our minds are literally built on movement, and consciousness – our experience of life – is believed to be the icing on the cake. As neurobiologist Francisco Varela explains – “The true root of the intelligence of all living beings, is being in the world and moving around the world.” Our brains are thought of as thinking machines, but they are primarily movement machines.


Mixed Martial Arts

So what does evolutionary neurobiology have to do with mixed martial arts or MMA as it is more frequently known? We know that these martial arts are forms of movement, quite often very complex, and much of our brain is dedicated to directing such actions. When we make efforts to move, especially in new or challenging ways, certain areas of the brain have heightened activity and blood flow. It has been shown that activity in one area of the brain results in higher activity in neighboring areas.


There are various areas of the brain involved in movement, and this means pretty much every part is ‘neighbouring’ them. Therefore – improving complexity and quality of movement ability – the foundation of training and competing – means the rest of your brain can get a boost. Without even using all of the areas directly.



This may seem like a tenuous line of logic, in order to make us fighters and practitioners feel more clever, but as well as this evolutionary reasoning there are also real time, demonstrated benefits of this sort of physical activity.


Amongst other processes, increased circulation brings with it more glucose to the brain, and stimulates greater balance of neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin, as well as the action of different hormones. All of these things combine to heighten brain activity and give us the ‘high’ we get from training, explaining why we are often more mentally excitable after a challenging session, even if we feel physically exhausted.


If all of this isn’t motivation enough to get on the mats – the learning of the movements like those in Jiu Jitsu, Wrestling or Muay Thai involves a physical restructuring of the brain, and a constant ‘insulating’ of the resulting new connections – known as Myelination, as well as processes that are only just beginning to be understood. It has also been shown that certain types of physical activity – aka exercise – causes Neurogenesis. That is, literally makes you grow more brain cells.



For the reasons explored above, this can have a beneficial chain of effect on every aspect of brain performance – Including problem solving, mood regulation (that training high again) reaction times and memory. In fact, exercising has been shown to boost memory so much it’s often advised for people studying for an exam or other memory tasks to workout as part of their preparation.


Even in lieu of some actual studying (of course this can only be taken so far, you can’t just do five hours of rolling and pass a driving test). Importantly, these effects aren’t just causing the “training something makes you better at that thing” phenomenon, but actually increasing your well-being and cognitive performance in all areas of life.


Of course this relates to all sorts of physical activity, it could be rock climbing, dancing or playing table tennis – and each of these will provide a benefit – so what makes MMA so special in this regard? As anyone who has experienced it knows, training and competing can be incredibly intense.


It includes and makes demands on all of our physical attributes – flexibility, agility, strength and cardiovascular fitness, it truly pushes the boundaries of what the body is capable of. So if you are going to choose an activity to really stimulate the body and light up the movement areas of your brain, training the various aspects of Mixed Martial Arts is a fantastic choice.




As well as being one of the most physically demanding activities we can engage in, MMA is both intellectually and psychologically challenging as well. One of the prouder claims of martial arts is that a smaller person can overcome a larger, stronger one with superior technique and cunning strategy.


Often a problem presented in sparring or competition can be overcome with planning and tactics, when mere physical attributes would fail us. So while it is incredibly physical, it definitely qualifies as a thinking game too. What’s more, the problem solving aspects of sparring and competition very much strengthen the links between body and brain – when you make a mistake, it may be because you weren’t thinking fast enough or you were outsmarted – but the resulting feedback from these mistakes is visceral.


You will feel the consequence of allowing that 95kg guy to pass your guard and take a tight side control, or you will feel the fleeting discomfort from the submission or strike, and it will take more effort to fight from this position and gain the advantage. In this way the problem solving, “thinking” aspect is tied heavily to physical feedback, and for this reason your body feels the mistake as much as your intellect does, allowing the process of improved problem solving to become even more deeply ingrained.


This sort of feedback is more powerful than the frustration felt when losing a hand of poker, or being checkmated. In an active spar or competition we feel our successes and failures not only intellectually, but also physically and emotionally.



This is something that precedes combat sports – animals benefit from this visceral process in order to prepare for necessity for physical confrontation and survival, from play fighting all the way to life threatening confrontations. Fighting has been part of what we do long before humans existed, and while the life or death aspect has been removed – that is what MMA is, a somewhat ‘simulated’ and refined fight.


All combat sports can boast these benefits – the high intensity and complexity – but one benefit some grappling sports such as Jiu Jitsu provide is the protection offered by the fact that in all but a few cases, head impact is avoided. Strikes are not allowed, in many competitions not even slams are permitted.


It is quite possible in some combat sports for the damage caused by head impact to far outweigh the benefits our brains receive. With grappling we are generally able to avoid this.



This is of course where attention has to be has to be paid to the dangers of MMA with relation to the brain. Extensive studies on sports related head impact and brain injuries have shown that certain instances directly damage the organ, so it can be easy to dismiss full contact Martial Arts training as something detrimental.


Certainly irresponsible training and bad officiation of events increase the risks of such damage, and even the best prepared fighter or best run event can run into tragic circumstances. However when and intelligent and informed approach is used, these risks can be greatly mitigated.


The subject of head impact and training, and how we can reduce risks, is extensive and beyond the scope of this article, but we can agree that it is essential to see the benefits and risks involved in any activity, and especially in the arts and sports we practice for. In the search for greater rewards, people take greater risks.


Of course the overall aim is to tip the balance in our favour, and it’s important we all consistently look for ways to do that. We can train for effectiveness but also health and longevity, and come out of our years of training better than when we started.



Inevitably any attempt to discuss something as complex as the brain will fall short of a full explanation, especially when thinking of the interaction with a complex activity like martial arts. There are so many avenues with physiology and psychology that the subject would never be exhausted, however it is still possible to look deeper into certain effects that our training can have.


An outside perspective may see a world where we have to choose between brains and brawn, but of course we know that these two are not mutually exclusive, they are in fact inextricably linked.


Certainly the fields of cognitive performance and the intricacies of the brain’s role in life in general are yet to be fully explored, whole fields of Science are dedicated to our understanding of them. While activities like combat sports are often thought of in superficial mechanical terms of muscles, tendons, joints and bones, we can now look deeper into the real driving forces of movement – our central nervous system and our ‘governor’ the brain.


We may not have a full Scientific understanding of how the body and brain work together, but we all have a medium with which we can directly experience how these processes are intricately linked – MMA.


Guest Blog Post written by 

Liam R.J. O’Neill


I hope you have enjoyed this Guest Blog Post on Mixed Martial Arts and the Evolution of the Fighting Brain!  Have you enjoyed it?  Let me know what you think in the comments below!!


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