Demystifying Qi

Posted Feb. 16, 2014 by NoetPoet in Open

commented on June 25, 2014
by NoetPoet



In this thread I will take a closer look at the concept of a vital life-force, particularly the well-known Chinese version called "Qi" or "Chi". I will examine the origins of Qi in Chinese culture, and show how effects and abilities which are traditionally attributed to Qi can be explained by modern science. In dispelling the illusionary idea of a life-force, I will also show how such seemingly extraordinary abilities are actually within the reach of anyone who is capable of putting in the time and effort to master them.

  • NoetPoet Jun 25, 2014

    Power of suggestion (Part 1 of 6)

    “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

    -Sun Tzu, The Art of War

    Martial combat is a demanding and risky endeavour, even for those who have had years of training in it. As the above quote from the famous Chinese military general Sun Tzu shows, it was widely considered preferable to avoid resolving problems by physical confrontation except as a last resort. Thus the ability to effectively deter, intimidate and manipulate the behaviour of hostile parties without having to engage in physical confrontation is highly advantageous. One way to do this is to convince hostile parties that you have access to a powerful mystical life-energy which gives you superhuman fighting abilities.

    We’ve already looked at how ancient Chinese society was beholden to groupthink and communal reinforcement regarding the existence of qi. In a society where only a small minority of people are literate and educated, where reverence of authority and antiquity abound, and where the scientific method is unknown, it is easy for superstitions to take widespread hold of people’s minds. Under these conditions most people will readily believe that monks, priests and martial artists have magical powers, especially if seemingly extraordinary feats can be performed to demonstrate those powers. Because the belief in qi is so widespread and communally reinforced in such conditions, people will react to alleged instances of qi as if it were a real thing. Furthermore, the more people fear and respect those with alleged access to qi, the more readily they will respond to demonstrations of it. This curious phenomenon is known as the “power of suggestion.” The power of suggestion has several key aspects: role-playing, apophenia, neuropsychological habituation, authoritative appeal, groupthink, expectation, the ideomotor effect and the placebo effect.

  • NoetPoet Jun 25, 2014

    Power of suggestion (Part 2 of 6)

    While most people tend to think of role-playing as a deliberate activity consciously undertaken by actors or therapy patients, it can also describe situations in which people subconsciously assume certain roles or behaviours in social interactions. These roles and behaviours are based on preconceived ideas and expectations about how a person is supposed to act in a particular social or environmental setting, a phenomenon known in psychology as learned social behaviour. Unlike the actor or the therapy patient, a person who engages in this sort of role-playing is not pretending; rather they hold a sincere belief or expectation about how a particular situation will affect them, and thus their body responds accordingly. This sort of role playing can be observed when a martial artist ‘demonstrates’ his power to knock out an opponent using qi, or when an audience member is hypnotised by a stage hypnotist. As long as the opponent or audience member is a genuine believer then the demonstrations will work, but the powers will not work with a sceptic.

    Role playing illustrates how the power of suggestion can be fed by groupthink and appeals to authority. A belief which is widely held by people can thereby seem more compelling even if it false: not only does a non-believer feel external “peer pressure” to subscribe to a generally accepted (but incorrect) belief in order to fit in, but the more popular such a belief is the more inclined a non-believer will be to think that those who subscribe to it do so because they know something that the non-believer doesn’t. Similarly an incorrect belief espoused by a perceived authority figure, or by a non-authority figure who espouses the belief with a strong sense of confidence, can cause a non-believer to question their non-belief.

    Qi “energy” balls (which were more extensively discussed in “Trickery”) are a prime example of how apophenia can coincide with the power of suggestion. Apophenia is the natural human tendency to perceive patterns or connections where there really are none. Rubbing one’s hands together and then holding them a short distance apart can give one the impression that there is an invisible “ball” of energy between one’s hands (due to the friction and heat of the rubbing). This impression is especially likely to occur when one has: 1) been told by someone else beforehand that such an exercise allows one to feel a ball of energy between one’s hands; or 2) has performed the exercise before and, referring to comparable experiences and concepts from their own memories, decided that it felt like a ball of energy between one’s hands. In other words, the prior *expectation* that a certain pattern will be perceived primes the brain to interpret sensory data so that it generates an impression of that pattern. Apophenia and the power of suggestion can thus give rise to and reinforce each other.

  • NoetPoet Jun 25, 2014

    Power of suggestion (Part 3 of 6)

    A closely related phenomenon which also underlies the power of suggestion is neuropsychological habituation. Another hand-related exercise provides a good example of neuropsychological habituation in action. In this exercise, one person holds their palms together out in front of their body (i.e. as if they were praying) while a second person tells the first person to imagine that their palms are been pressed together tighter and tighter, as if they were being held together by superglue or powerful magnets. After a few minutes of this, the second person asks the first person to pull apart their hands, and in most cases the first person will find it virtually impossible to do so! This happens because the neural pathways in the first person’s brain have been conditioned (even if only for a few minutes) to support the perception that the hands are stuck together, and it is not possible for the neural pathways to instantly “rewire” themselves back into thinking otherwise.

    Yet despite all of these subtle ways in which the mind can be tricked into believing in things which aren’t really there, people who are convinced that they have experienced qi for themselves and/or consider themselves immune to such psychological influences may insist that qi is a real thing that can be personally verified. For example, some believers may say that they difference between muscle energy and qi energy is like the difference between picking up a garden hose as opposed to the hose being moved by the force of water running through it. In such situations it may *feel* like there is an unusual qi force beyond what the body is physically capable of, and this unusual qi sensation may even be associated with bodily movements which are more fluid, more spontaneous, or in some other way more remarkable than what the body is normally capable of. However such experiences are not due to an actual extra-physical qi force, but to a well-known psychophysical phenomenon called the “ideomotor effect”.

    The ideomotor effect has to do with the influence that suggestion (i.e. due to beliefs and expectations) has on involuntary or subconscious actions. In motor behaviour, there are two parts to the brain activity. The first is the activity that results in the motor activity; the second is the registration of that activity in the conscious mind. The ideomotor effect happens when the second part, the conscious registration, is circumvented.

  • NoetPoet Jun 25, 2014

    Power of suggestion (Part 4 of 6)

    The ideomotor effect has five features:
    1) Action which is the result of (usually greatly amplified) minor unconscious motor activity

    2) Projection - the responsibility for the action is connected to some other thing or entity

    3) Attribution - because of the projection, the action is attributed to some undiscovered phenomenon or paranormal activity

    4) Delusion - the person who demonstrates the activity is considered to be someone with an exceptional ability

    5) Self-confirmation - once the ideomotor effect begins to take place, psychological reinforcement can amplify the effect and prevent falsification in the minds of witnesses as well as the person who demonstrates the activity

    The ideomotor effect is also at the heart of other allegedly paranormal phenomena including dowsing, the movement of tables and other objects at séances, automatic writing, Ouija boards, pulse diagnosis, and crystal divination. For example, in crystal divination an operator holds a crystal pendulum and attributes certain meanings depending on which direction the pendulum would swing. Priests used this technique to channel divine messages. Alchemists used it to determine the composition of an object. The results were very convincing, until double-blind trials failed to yield the same results.

    Another example of the ideomotor effect is "table tilting" – an initially American craze that caught on in Victorian Britain at the height of the popularity of séances. Guests would sit around a table resting their hands upon its upper surface. After a while, the table would move, apparently of its own volition. The movements might be slight jerks, but in a successful session, sitters would find themselves chasing around the room trying to keep up with the table. The famous English physicist Michael Faraday carried out a series of ingenious experimental investigations which established that, despite the protestations of sitters at séances, it was in fact unintentional muscular movements causing the table to move. Since Michael Faraday’s experiments, experiments have shown that dowsing does not provide results better than chance when tested under properly controlled conditions that rule out the use of other cues to indicate target location.

  • NoetPoet Jun 25, 2014

    Power of suggestion (Part 5 of 6)

    Scientific tests of “paranormal” phenomena which are actually due to the ideomotor effect demonstrate that even honest, intelligent people can unconsciously engage in muscular activity that is consistent with their expectations. They also show suggestions that guide behaviour can be given by subtle cues.

    Whereas the ideomotor effect involves a person’s beliefs unconsciously influencing their muscle movements, the placebo effect appears to involve a person’s beliefs unconsciously influencing their internal biochemistry. ‘Placebo’ is a Latin term which translates to ‘I shall be acceptable or pleasing’, and the placebo effect is a reduction in fear, pain and other outward symptoms of an illness which can occur when a person *believes* that a supposed healing treatment is effective. Scientists are increasingly coming to understand the complex interaction of the brain and the endocrine system that gives rise to the placebo effect. When people are sick they typically experience pain and fear.

    The human brain has evolved to respond to pain and fear by preparing the body to meet external threats and avoid additional injury from such threats. The brain does this by ordering the release of stress hormones into the bloodstream in order to increase respiration, blood pressure and heart rate. However when it comes to disease, these changes may actually impede recovery. So when an ill person encounters a healer with a calm and confident demeanour, it neutralizes the stress-response and allows the body’s own immune system and internal pharmacy to do its job properly. Indeed, such is the inherent power of the body’s own natural healing capabilities that half the battle with many illnesses is simply to get stress ‘out of the way’. Since most people recover from most illnesses, successful experiences with a calm confident healer reinforces a patient's faith in the healer and the healing method, and thereby helps to ensure that the placebo effect will be equally or more effective at speeding up recovery next time the patient goes to that healer for treatment. It is for these reasons that the placebo effect goes a long way towards explaining the perceived effectiveness of (otherwise pharmacologically and anatomically irrelevant) qi-based medicine.

  • NoetPoet Jun 25, 2014

    Power of suggestion (Part 6 of 6)

    Clearly the power of suggestion plays a central role in both the martial and medical manifestations of qi. But what are the larger implications of this? Is qi still a valid concept, can it still be regarded as ‘real’? Well that depends on what you mean by ‘real’.

    Insofar as it is a propaganda tool which can influence the perceptions and behaviour of individuals and grounds, qi can be regarded as real and efficacious enough. Indeed it is plausible that the proliferation of martial arts movies and Eastern mysticism in the West in recent decades constitutes a huge decentralised propaganda campaign which serves to inspire fear, awe, and reverence among Westerners which is useful to various parties who wish to advance their own political, martial and/or financial interests. We may have modern science and universal education in the early 21st century, but we also have CGI special effects, a sophisticated advertising industry and a lot of people who yearn for more enchanted and fulfilling lives. Like the societies of ancient East Asia, we are still susceptible to mass delusion and communally reinforced beliefs.

    Qi can also be thought of as ‘real’ in the sense that it is an Expedient Truth. An Expedient Truth is an idea which is designed to accomplish certain ends; its consistency with factual reality is a secondary consideration at best. Belief in qi is central to the practice of a number of Eastern martial arts, and whether teachings about qi are used as a mental model to improve one’s posture/stance, focus one’s mind or improve one’s self confidence, it clearly can be useful to regard qi as real *under certain circumstances*. However the concept of an Expedient Truth which you only need to believe enough to get the job done can be very difficult to appreciate in practice: people either tend to get carried away and think of it as genuinely factually real, or the awareness of the self-deception inherent in the Expedient Truth causes them to discard it (and thereby also forego the practical benefits that may come with it).

    Finally, qi could also be regarded as ‘real’ in the sense of being a supervenient meta-phenomenon which emerges from a combination of clever applications of classical physics, biochemical processes, social dynamics, and psychological factors such as peoples’ selective and self-reinforcing perceptions about the reality of “qi”. In this sense qi is actually an illusion, but we must remember that illusions still *exist* insofar as they are distortions of our perceptions. This interpretation of qi is directly incompatible with the idea that it is a primordial fundamental life-force, yet it also allows us to provisionally *treat* it as such under certain circumstances. Although qi supervenes on the mind and body under this interpretation, it can nevertheless feed back into the body and mind by effecting our thinking and emotions, which in turn effects our actions and bodily processes.

  • NoetPoet Jun 04, 2014

    The article about Power of Suggestion is under construction. In the mean time, here are some interesting links which look at how physics can explain the seemingly extraordinary feats of martial arts that are often attributed to qi:

    "Physics of Karate – No Woo Required":

    "Harvard Natural Sciences Lecture Demonstrations: - Impulse, Work, and Energy":

    "Busted Explanations for Karate Breaking":

    "The Physics of Martial Arts: Breaking Boards":


  • NoetPoet May 05, 2014

    Physical strength (part 1 of 2)

    We’ve already looked at how proper training and technique (e.g. twisting one’s upper body when delivering a roundhouse punch) can lead to a huge increase in a person’s physical strength. For example, a trained boxer can punch 10 times harder than an average untrained person, and a trained weightlifter can lift several times the weight that an average untrained person can. Such levels of physical strength are actually more than sufficient to perform the feats of strength which are often attributed to qi, such as breaking bricks and cement blocks with one’s bare hands. As also mentioned, careful timing and targeting in the application of one’s physical strength also have an important part to play in optimising the effectiveness of one’s strength.

    Although martial artists employ trickery like stage magicians, a key difference is that many of the tricks performed by martial artists actually do require considerable physical strength. For example, there is a trick which involves one martial artist striking and breaking a series of concrete blocks stacked vertically on the torso of another martial artist lying face-up on the ground. Both martial artists must put a great deal of effort into physical training for this trick: the martial artists who strikes the blocks must train to maximise the physical strength in his arm, upper body and hand, while the lying down martial artists must train to maximise the strength of his abdominal muscles. At the same time the first martial artists strikes the blocks, the second martial artists tenses and thrusts his abdominal muscles outwards. The simultaneous application of both martial artists’ physical force to opposite ends of the stack delivers a physical shock sufficient to break the stack of blocks.

    Simultaneous application of sheer physical force to opposite ends of a structure also allows a martial artist to perform the trick of breaking a bottle with their bare hands. In this trick, a martial artist holds a glass bottle about ¼ full of water by its neck in one hand, and strikes the bottle with the palm of the other hand. As the martial artist thrusts their palm down onto the bottle, they simultaneously move the bottle upward with the other hand. The combined force of *both* hands moving in opposite directions and the water at the bottom of the bottle concentrate the force in the bottom of the bottle, causing the bottom of the bottle to break.

  • NoetPoet May 05, 2014

    Physical Strength (part 2 of 2)

    The impressive strength potential of the human body can also be witnessed in ordinary people who experience an adrenaline rush. When faced with fear or sudden danger, a region of the brain called the hypothalamus is stimulated. The stimulated hypothalamus sends a chemical signal to the adrenal glands which shifts the sympathetic nervous system into an excited state. The adrenal glands release adrenaline (epinephrine) and noradrenaline (norepinephrine), hormones that create a state of readiness which allow for a “fight-or-flight” response: they raise heart rate, increase respiration, dilate the pupils, slow down digestion and allow muscles to contract.

    These physiological changes make a person temporarily more agile, capable of taking in more sensory information, and capable of using more energy in a short period of time. The adrenaline facilitates the conversion of the body’s glycogen stores into glucose (the body’s fuel,) allows the muscles to contract more than they can under normal conditions, and allows blood to flow more easily to the muscles. The combination of increased oxygen (via the blood), increased glucose and enhanced muscle contraction capability allows the muscles to perform far more effectively than usual. Thus, people under the influence of an adrenaline rush can perform extraordinary feats such as lifting up cars and other heavy items which would normally be far too heavy for them to lift. The strong contraction in muscles induced by an adrenalin rush is similar to the strong muscular contraction which occurs when a person is electrocuted: the electricity causes a sudden intense contraction of the muscles, and it is this contraction – not the electricity itself –which can cause the person’s body to be thrown some distance away.

    The state of hyper-arousal caused by an adrenalin rush can only be sustained for a short period of time; if a person remained in such a state, they would face a whole variety of dangers from muscle and joint injury to exhaustion and increased risk of heart attack. Martial artists can, through their physical training and conditioning, improve both their muscle strength and their ability to sustainably tap into their body’s potential physical strength.

  • NoetPoet Apr 24, 2014

    Trickery (part 1 of 4)

    Imagine that you’re watching a magic show. The magician produces a crumpled up piece of paper, places it on a table, and holds his hand out a few centimetres above the paper. The magician starts to shake his outstretched hand, his face contorted in an expression of intense concentration. Suddenly, the crumpled up piece of paper starts to smoke, and moments later it catches fire. To the audience it looks as if the magician has channelled some mystical power from the depths of his own being in order to make the piece of paper spontaneously combust! And yet, no one in the audience -except perhaps for young children and the very gullible - seriously believes that the magician has actually made the piece of paper catch fire with the power of his mind. We readily acknowledge that stage magicians use various forms of trickery to make it *seem* like they can defy the laws of nature.

    Yet when we see Indian Gurus, Taoist Sages, or tribal shamans perform similar or less astounding feats, we are encouraged to believe that they are not mere illusions but demonstrations of actual mystical powers. Even when such figures are caught trying to pass off stage magic tricks as miracles – for example, when the (in)famous Indian mystic Sai Baba was caught on camera ‘materializing’ watches that were in fact carefully concealed by his wrist and hand – many continue to believe that these gurus, sages and shamans really are displaying abilities which can’t be explained by science. We must remember though that the basic toolkit of stage magicians – which includes distractions, hidden props, pre-arranged “volunteers” , dark backgrounds, and clever filming, among other things – can be just as readily utilized by these ‘spiritual masters’. Furthermore, such ‘spiritual masters’ have strong incentives to try and pass off stage magic as genuine miracles: there is immense prestige, wealth, fame and adoration to be gained from demonstrating “miraculous” powers, and it is far easier to learn tricks which look like mystical powers than it is to develop actual mystical powers (especially considering that the latter are almost certainly impossible in any case). Admittedly we can’t prove that every single feat attributed to qi or some other paranormal power is just a magic trick. But conversely, those who claim to be able to harness mystical powers like qi to perform extraordinary feats (or make such claims about other people) cannot be taken on their word alone, no matter how trustworthy they may seem: the onus is on them to demonstrate that such feats can’t be explained by more mundane factors such as illusionist trickery.

  • NoetPoet Apr 24, 2014

    Trickery (part 2 of 4)

    It would be fairly easy to dismiss the extraordinary feats of qi masters as magic tricks, were it not the case that qi is supposedly a universal life force which can be harnessed by anyone. Those who doubt the genuine nature of extraordinary feats of qi can confirm the existence of qi for themselves through certain exercises. Or can they?

    It is said that one way to verify the existence of qi for yourself is to hold your hands a few centimetres in front of a mirror after vigorous exercise. When you do this, you can supposedly witness qi issuing from your hands to form misty ascending trails on the mirror’s surface. What’s actually happening is that sweat vapour is rising from your hot hands and condensing on the (relatively) cold mirror surface. Your body cools itself back down after exercise by producing sweat. Some of the sweat runs down your skin, but a large portion of it will also evaporate off. Under the right conditions – for example, when people exercise outdoors on cold evenings under bright lights – it’s possible to see sweat steaming off human skin with the naked eye. Now if you keep in mind that the Chinese character for qi depicts steam rising of cooked rice, then you could argue that you technically *can* see your qi when you hold your hot hands close to a cool mirror. However such an argument would be superficial, pedantic, and would completely overlook the fact that what you’re seeing is actually water condensation rather than some mysterious primal life-force.

    Another well-known way to supposedly experience qi/vital energy for yourself is to vigorously rub your palms together and then hold them about 10 centimetres apart. The idea of this exercise is that you will feel a tingly hot “ball” of energy between your palms. It is claimed that this perceived “ball” of energy is a temporary concentration of your qi. In actuality it is a combination of three things: 1) the natural heat of your own hands, augmented by the friction-induced heat from rubbing your hands together; 2) stimulation of nerves in your palms from the friction and pressure of the rubbing; and 3) power of suggestion and apophenia (a natural tendency to perceive patterns that aren’t really there) creating the illusory sense of a “ball” of energy between your hands.

  • NoetPoet Apr 24, 2014

    Trickery (part 3 of 4)

    There is also a more subtle kind of trickery at work with respect to qi. This other kind of trickery is more collective and less deliberate in nature, and it is the primary mechanism by which the body of knowledge of Traditional Chinese Medicine (and other vitalism-based forms of medicine) grew and evolved. I’ll call it “communal trickery”. In the case of qi-based medicine, communal trickery emerges from the interplay of five cognitive habits: the Texas sharpshooter fallacy, confirmation bias, communal reinforcement, appeal to authority, and argument from antiquity. These cognitive habits are all based on faulty logic.

    The Texas sharpshooter fallacy is the use of the same data to both construct and test a hypothesis. The name of this fallacy comes from a joke about a Texan who fires his gun at the side of a barn, then paints targets around the shots and claims to be a sharpshooter. As the joke suggests, this fallacy occurs when a specific hypothesis is formed *only after* data has already been gathered and examined. The problem with the Texas sharpshooter fallacy is that it stresses similarities and downplays differences in data, and this can lead to a false conclusions where some factor(s) other than the one attributed may be responsible for perceived commonalities. For example, some herbal medicines might actually be effective for pharmacological reasons, but their effectiveness is mistakenly attributed to their qi: their discovery is a happy accident resulting from speculation and trial-and-error, and the fact that their effectiveness is misattributed to qi is, for all practical purposes, beside the point as far as patient and healer are concerned. Conversely, treatments which have obvious negative health effects for pharmacological or physiological reasons can just as easily have those effects misattributed to their association with ‘bad’ qi. Nevertheless, this information filters into medicinal lore and prompts others to avoid these dangerous treatments in future. Simply put, the Texas sharpshooter fallacy can cause practitioners of qi-based medicine to do right things for the wrong reasons.

    Similar to the Texas sharpshooter fallacy, confirmation bias is a type of selective thinking where a person looks for evidence which confirm their beliefs while ignoring, downplaying, or refusing to investigate evidence which contradicts their beliefs. People are more willing and therefore more likely to report successes with qi-based medicine than failures. Additionally, a person who resorts to qi-based medicine in the first place is usually already convinced of its effectiveness before they begin treatment, thanks in large part to all the positive testimonials from those who have already selectively reported their successful experiences with qi-based medicine.

  • NoetPoet Apr 24, 2014

    Trickery (part 4 of 4)

    This can in turn cause a placebo effect in a person once they commence qi-based medicinal treatment, and encourage the person to selectively focus on evidence which appears to suggest that the treatment is working. Those patients who end up satisfied with their treatment are then more likely to report their experiences than patients who aren’t satisfied, and so the cycle goes on. Confirmation bias also affects the practitioners of qi-based medicine: while the Texas sharpshooter fallacy might cause them to correctly adopt or reject certain medical practices for incorrect reasons, confirmation bias can cause them to adopt certain medical practices which in reality have neither a beneficial nor adverse effect on human health (e.g. prescribing the consumption of animal penises to promote male virility).

    Communal reinforcement is the process by which a claim becomes a strong belief through repeated assertion by members of a community. Communal reinforcement can occur regardless of whether a claim has been properly researched or has sufficient evidence to back it up. However, in the case of qi-based medicine, confirmation bias and the Texas sharpshooter fallacy work together to augment the perceived credibility of this repetitive assertion. This augmented communal reinforcement in turn reinforces the presence of the placebo effect, confirmation bias and selective reporting in qi-based medicine. Members of the community are culturally conditioned to expect that qi-based medicine works, while also being subject to subconscious communal pressure to report positive results from qi-based treatments.

    The role played by communal reinforcement in qi-based medicine was further enhanced by the emphasis that traditional Chinese culture placed on the importance of conformity, reverence of ancestors and duty to society. In both ancient and modern contexts, the communal reinforcement in qi-based medicine is reinforced by two other types of fallacious thinking: appeal to authority and argument from antiquity. Qi-based medicine manages to combine both of these fallacies in a synergistic way, as it purports to have been handed down from mysterious ‘ancient sages’ with ‘peerless wisdom’. Therefore doubting or questioning the received medical lore is considered disrespectful and foolish, and both the placebo effect and confirmation bias are further enhanced by the notion that qi-based medicine is based on authoritative ancient wisdom.

    Communal trickery then is a collective delusion mutually imposed by members of a society on each other, and it can occur without any member of that society realizing it. Communal trickery is inherently self-reinforcing and self-sustaining, and because it involves a complex interplay of faulty thinking habits across many people it can give rise to a body of knowledge – in this case, qi-based medicine- which seems superficially compelling but has little basis in reality.

  • Anonymous Icon

    richrf Apr 20, 2014

    Qi is many things because it takes so many forms. It is somewhat analogous to Bohm's quantum potential field which flows within everything.

    Your explanation of Qi energy in martials arts is what the Chinese may call "external" or muscle energy. There is another form b called "internal" energy which can be likened to moving a water hose by putting it on the ground and allowing water to move through it as opposed to moving it by picking it up and moving it with arm muscles. Highly skilled martial artists practice and learn both types of energy.

  • NoetPoet Apr 14, 2014

    Timing (part 1 of 2)

    Just as martial artists are careful about where they apply physical effort, they are also careful about *when* they apply it. As martial artists practice their forms and techniques, their minds and bodies become more familiar with the movements, and thus they are able to perform those movements with increasing speed and agility. This phenomenon is known as “muscle memory”, because it involves repeated movements which condition the muscles to “remember” how to move in particular ways. Muscle memory is also an important part of learning a musical instrument: a beginning musician can only play songs or scales in a slow and hesitant manner, but with repetition (i.e. practice) they become mentally and physically familiar with the movements involved in those scales and songs, and eventually they reach a point where they can play with an effortlessness and speed which would be impossible for an untrained individual.

    Sufficient practice of technique can improve a martial artist’s timing to such a degree that they can stop a full-speed kick centimetres from another person’s head, or even stop a full-speed sword slice so close to a person’s hand that it only causes the tiniest cut. Because the (well-trained) martial artist is intimately familiar with how every part of such actions looks and feels, and because they have also trained their minds to focus clearly on the task presently at hand, they can feel exactly where and when to slow down particular parts of the movement to achieve such impressive effects.

    Timing is also an important factor in defensive movements. For example, martial artists who spar frequently come to recognize what certain types of attack look like before they are fully formed (e.g. they become acquainted with what an opponent’s body language looks like when they are about to launch a particular kind of punch). This allows the martial artist to form an appropriate defence to block the incoming strike before it can make impact. Moreover, because martial artists also practice defensive moves over and over they develop muscle memory which allows them to execute those moves in an intuitive, fluid and rapid manner. From an untrained observer’s point of view, this combination of muscle-memory and awareness of early warning signs can make it look like the martial artist has superhumanly rapid reflexes, which may be in turn be erroneously attributed to the martial artists’ cultivation of qi.

  • NoetPoet Apr 14, 2014

    Timing (Part 2 of 2)

    Whether striking or being struck, the right physiological actions at the right moment in time can have a significant effect. If a martial artist expects to be struck in a certain region of their body, they can quickly adjust their body such that the impact occurs on a part of the body with minimum vulnerability (i.e. away from vital organs, and towards parts of the body that have hardened muscle and/or bone as a result of deliberate training and conditioning). Emitting a strong sharp exhalation and yell which coincide with the moment of impact can help focus a martial artist’s mind away from the pain, while also give the body an extra thrust of outward momentum and prompting the muscles in the strike-affected area to tense at the moment of impact so that they can better resist the force of the blow. Similarly, a strong sharp exhalation and yell timed to coincide with the moment one strikes an object can momentarily prevent one’s mind from thinking about the physical pain of the strike, while also adding to the force of one’s strike by giving the body an extra thrust of outward momentum and prompting the muscles in the striking limb to tense just in time for the impact.

    Timing also plays a subtle yet significant role in the apparent effectiveness of qi-based medical practices like acupuncture. This is because of a statistical phenomenon called “regression to the mean”. Regression to the mean refers to the tendency of variables to even out and return to normal over time. Many ailments are a good example of regression to the mean, because they will tend to go away naturally as the body’s defences fight them off. Conversely, many unwell people will only seek medical help when the symptoms of their ailment are at or near their peak level of acuteness. While this tendency applies to people who seek both alternative and conventional medicine, it is particularly relevant to the former because: 1) alternative medicine generally “works” via the placebo effect (which suppresses *symptoms*) as opposed to any physiological or biochemical mechanisms; and 2) many people only try alternative medicine like acupuncture after they’ve already tried conventional medicine. In the case of 2), it is probable that the conventional medicines have actually helped to treat the ailment, but the patient has simply been too impatient or selective in their perception to realize it.

  • NoetPoet Mar 24, 2014

    Targeting (part 1 of 2)

    Suppose you want to kick a locked door open. Which part of the door would you strike? If your kick lands too close to the lock or the hinges, then these will absorb most of the force from your kick and channel it into the door frame and the door will most likely remain locked and intact. This outcome is even more likely if you kick the door from any angle other than directly front-on, because the dimensions of the door (i.e. being a rectangular prism with very little depth compared to its length and width) allow it to distribute force applied at an angle throughout its body much more effectively than an equivalent full frontal force. However, if you kick the door front-on at a point well away from these force-absorbing-and-channelling features (i.e. near the middle of the door), then they will not be able to absorb and channel as much of the force from your kick: the door will take most of the force in its relatively unsupported middle area, and because the lock and hinges respond with inertia and hold the peripheries of the door in place, it causes structural tension whereby the middle of the door tries to fly open in the direction of your kick while the peripheries of the door are pushed slightly forward because the hinges and lock hold them in place. Thus you are more likely to succeed in kicking the door open.

    So ideally you would want your foot to make impact near the middle of the door from front-on, slightly closer to the handle side than the hinge side since the handle will not be as effective at absorbing and channelling the force of your kick as the hinges. For any given amount of force that you apply to the door with your kick, you are most likely to successfully kick the door open if you apply that force from the optimal angle to its weakest structural point.

  • NoetPoet Mar 24, 2014

    Targeting (part 2 of 2)

    The same is true of any object: if you want to break something by hitting it, the best strategy is to hit it at a point and from a direction where it has minimal structural reinforcement, minimal shock-absorption capability, and maximum brittleness. These points tend to be in the middle of an object, on the sides with the greatest surface area, and in some cases frail connection points between different objects or components within an object. This is why martial artists tend to break blocks of wood by striking them in the middle on the flattest side, and break bricks by striking them on the flattest side with a diagonal striking motion.

    Humans and other living creatures are obviously more complex than doors and bricks, but this complexity also provides a whole new set of options for targeting force. Some parts of the human body contain vital organs which are relatively unprotected and sensitive compared to others, e.g. the temple, throat, eyes, genitals, the front of the shoulder. Hitting these areas with a given amount of force can cause much greater damage than hitting less vulnerable body parts with the same amount of force. Before the advent of Newtonian physics and in-depth anatomical knowledge, the martial arts lore of which body parts were most vulnerable to assault would have allowed martial artists to injure and kill opponents in ways which would have seemed magical and awe-inspiring to outsiders. It was thus easy for both martial artists and non-martial artists alike to think that such abilities were due to qi rather than clever application of physical force.

  • NoetPoet Mar 10, 2014


    Eastern martial arts like Tai-Chi and Kung Fu place a great deal of emphasis on qi, and they also place a great deal of emphasis on mastering specific patterns of body movement known as “forms”. This is not a coincidence. Any activity that humans engage in whether simple, complex, mental or physical can only be performed optimally when the right technique is employed. For example, a weightlifter can lift a much heavier mass with much less risk of injury by squatting down and using the power of his legs, rather than bending over and picking up the weights while standing. A freestyle swimmer adjusts her arm strokes and leg paddling so that they move the water around her body as efficiently as possible, whereas thrashing her limbs about in a furious disorganised manner would result in greater exhaustion and a slower swimming speed.

    A martial artist learns all sorts of movement techniques as part of their training, from how to form a fist, to how to adopt a stable fighting stance, to how to put the weight of one’s body behind a kick or a punch. These practices condition a martial artists’ mind and body to know how to move in certain ways in certain circumstance, so as to maximise the force delivered and minimise risk of injury (both self-inflicted and opponent-inflicted). A big part of technique training in martial arts is to co-ordinate one’s breathing with one’s movements, as this helps to focus the mind and gives the body an extra ‘burst’ of force at the right time. The emphasis on learning the forms also helps to ensure that one’s posture is correct, as this helps to optimise the effectiveness of proper breathing as well as improving physical stability, flexibility and one’s ability to utilise the physical strength of the whole body. Technique training conditions the body to develop strength and agility in the right places. The effect of proper movement and breathing technique is further augmented when combined with the increased physical strength and fitness which results from regular exercise and proper diet.

  • NoetPoet Mar 03, 2014

    Addendum to Training:

    The experience of "Flow" which has been reported by some athletes when they are in peak psycho-physical condition, has been described as a mystical and ecstatic experience. It seems likely that this experience of Flow is a result of the four components of training (physical excercise, diet, breathwork, and psychological conditioning) working in a strongly synergistic manner.

  • NoetPoet Mar 03, 2014

    Training (part 1 of 2)

    Can you run 100 metres in 10 seconds? Can you bench press 300 kilograms? Can you sit down at a piano and flawlessly play a sonata by Mozart? Perhaps you can draw photo-realistic portraits of people?

    If you can do one or more of these things, then my hat is off to you. I say this because, although natural talent and disposition almost certainly play a part in your impressive ability, such extraordinary feats can’t be achieved without a great deal of disciplined training. And these feats are indeed extraordinary: they are well beyond the capability of the vast majority of people who do not invest the enormous amount of time and effort required to master them.

    These days we see many people performing the sort of feats described above, so we don’t tend to think of them as being quite so extraordinary. When it becomes commonplace to see a bunch of athletes run 100m in 10 seconds on TV, it’s easy to forget that 1) each of those athletes has years of intensive training behind them, and 2) only a tiny fraction of humanity can run anywhere near that fast. It can also be easy to forget that the training regimes of those athletes are not based on harnessing mystical life-energies, but on scientifically rigorous physical and psychological practices.

    Like athletes, martial artists invest a lot of time and effort into training so that they can accomplish feats that are beyond the rest of us. Whether it be athletics or martial arts, training involves four main components:
    1) Physical exercises
    2) Psychological conditioning
    3) Breath control
    4) Diet and nutrition

  • NoetPoet Mar 03, 2014

    Training (part 2 of 2)

    These training components are synergistic: incorporating them all into a training regime will deliver vastly better results than only incorporating one or some of them. This is as true for Olympic athletes as it is for Kung-Fu fighters. Obviously, appropriate physical exercises will make you physically stronger/faster/more agile by conditioning your body, particularly your muscles. But appropriate nutrition can also make a huge difference to performance, because your body requires the appropriate energy and nutrients to re-condition itself for optimal performance. Learning to control the timing and depth of your breath also makes a big difference: just as breathing out helps you to lift weights up, it will also help you to deliver a more forceful punch. Indeed, considering how important proper breathing is for optimum athletic performance, it is hardly surprising that “qi” - which, remember, means “air” or “breath” - has been treated as a mystical life-force. Having the right attitude and presence of mind has a decisive effect on the other three components. If you don’t believe you can bench press 300 kilograms, then chances are you never will because your lack of confidence will stop you from doing the necessary physical training and dieting, your breathing won’t be properly controlled if you do try to attempt it, and the mental suggestion that “I can’t do this” will both inadvertently tell the body to not fully commit to such an effort while also making the pain and stress seem more burdensome and acute. Similarly, if you don’t believe you can break a piece of wood or a brick by hitting it with your hand, then you won’t commit to the proper physical and dietary training required for such a feat, you’ll be too nervous to breathe effectively if you do attempt it, and your fear of pain/injury/embarrassment will send a suggestion to the body to not fully commit to the blow.

    Although proper breathing is crucial to a martial artists’ ability to break hard objects by hitting them, it requires years of training involving exercises to toughen up the hand and arm muscles and to encourage denser bone regrowth by inflicting “micro-trauma” on the hand bones (the latter is often done by using knuckleboards). Changing one’s diet to optimise protein intake (for muscle growth) and calcium intake (for bone density) are also necessary in order to accomplish such feats.

    Just as training is the key to physical strength, it is also the key to mastering one’s technique, targeting, and timing.

  • NoetPoet Feb 22, 2014

    Since about 3,000 years ago, traditional Chinese medicine has regarded illnesses as being due to an imbalance of qi in the body. Qi is said to travel throughout the body by way of fourteen main channels called meridians. The practice of acupuncture is based on the idea that inserting needles into points along these channels can adjust the positive (yang), or negative (yin) aspects of the qi, so as to maintain a balance and harmony. Herbs, massage, eating different types of food, and other methods are also alleged to have an effect on this balance. The practice of Qigong is said to allow practitioners to direct the qi in their bodies just by using their minds.

    When the concept of qi first appeared in ancient Chinese literature, the existence of cells, blood circulation, neurology, hormones and biochemistry were unknown. Dissection of the human body was culturally discouraged, so it was only possible to glean anatomical information from corpses after battles. After the fall of the axe, blood quickly leaves the body and ancient Chinese observers assumed that this liquid came from the body cavity, rather than the seemingly empty tubes that they later were able to see after the blood had drained away. We now know that these other vessels are the carotid arteries and jugular veins, which transport blood. Ancient observers guessed that because these tubes appeared empty and deflated, that some form of air or special gas must inflate them, which was called qi. They believed that our bodies were inflated and nourished by this special air and that the arteries and veins were simply part of the respiratory system.

    Pulse diagnosis first appeared in China about 2,500 years ago. At that time, doctors believed that what they were feeling were pulses of air, not blood. Later, when closer observations revealed residual blood inside veins (trapped there by the bicuspid valves), the theory of qi was modified to state that veins carried blood and arteries carried air. As early as the late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) the famous anatomist Wang Qingren held to the mistaken belief that arteries carried air, not blood.

  • NoetPoet Feb 22, 2014

    One special variety of qi is that of ”jing qi of heaven,” which grew out of the ancient worship of sexual reproduction. It was believed that conception occurred as a result of contact with heavenly gas, or jing qi and that in order to increase one’s health and maintain optimum energy, frequent exposure to this special condition was necessary. This led to the Art of Coitus where the male’s semen was credited with magical life-giving properties, a concrete manifestation of the qi of heaven.

    In addition to the concept of jing qi, qi supposedly has other qualities and can be produced by fire. A cold person is said to be lacking in qi and a hot person is said to have too much of it. Four important functions of qi are: the development of strength, resistance to disease and evil spirits, the maintenance of good health and longevity. The idea that qi can be obtained from the environment led to the practice of consuming the sex organs of various animals, such as foxes and birds. The kidneys of mice, the pollen from flowers, and alcohol were also thought to contain highly potent forms of qi. Any sort of pungent plant or root was said to contain qi. Some substances may have been selected because they happen to look similar to other things. Ginseng, for example is said to resemble a fetus. The consumption of placental after-birth is still a common practice in the Chinese countryside. The idea – an example of magical thinking - is that the active medical ingredient in all of these substances is qi.

    So if the concept of qi is based on a pre-scientific misunderstanding about how the body works, how can we account for its many impressive effects and applications? We can do so by understanding that these effects and applications have a variety of explanations which are completely consistent with modern science. These explanations can be assigned to seven broad categories, which I call “the 5 T’s and 2 P’s”: Training, Technique, Targeting, Timing, Trickery, Physical strength, and Power of suggestion. I will explore each of these categories in more detail.

  • NoetPoet Feb 21, 2014

    (More to follow)

  • NoetPoet Feb 21, 2014

    Qi is a Chinese word meaning “air” (it is often also translated as “breath”), and the Chinese character for Qi depicts steam rising off rice. Like many ancient pre-scientific cultures throughout the world, the ancient Chinese considered the breath to be the vital essence or spirit of a person. (The English word “spirit” comes from a Latin word meaning “to breathe”). In the context of a pre-scientific society thousands of years ago, this was an entirely reasonable idea: when a person is breathing they are clearly alive, when they are having difficulties breathing they are clearly unwell, and if they are not breathing then they are either dead or dangerously close to being dead. Because the breath is integral to the functioning of the body yet not really of the body itself, it was also reasonable for the ancients to believe that the breath was the essential animating principle – i.e. the spirit - of a person, and that the ceasing of respiration was the spirit leaving the body. This idea would have seemed even more convincing given that Near Death Experiences (i.e. involving an afterlife and a sense of the mind leaving the body) occur near times when a person’s breathing stops.

    While modern science certainly agrees with the ancients that the breath is essential to animal life, we now understand a great deal more about what the breath is and how it works. We now understand that it is oxygen – which makes up about 21% of the air we breathe – which is critical to a range of chemical reactions which are vitally important to sustaining the body. We now understand that the air we exhale is chemically different from the air we inhale, and that this difference has extremely important implications for the continued functioning of the body. We now also understand that the oxygen we inhale is critical to sustaining the brain, and that the brain is responsible for awareness, feeling and thought (the ancients thought little of the brain and instead believed that the seat of the mind was in the heart, hence the English phrases about listening to, following, and knowing in “your heart”). However the breathe is a dynamic chemical composition which itself is devoid of feeling, thought, and awareness.

    While the sensible but largely uninformed suppositions of the ancients have been surpassed by modern science, Qi and various other ideas of a “vital essence” have evolved over the last few centuries into a concept of a mysterious, subtle, invisible and intangible primal “energy” that underlies and is carried within the air we breathe. The ability to perform extraordinary feats by manipulating one’s breathing in certain ways has reinforced this conception. Modern science has never identified such a primal “vital energy”, and can explain the functioning of the body quite well without resorting to such a concept. While Qi can sometimes be useful in certain practical contexts, it is really a catch-all idea that seems to explain everything but illuminates nothing.

  • Anonymous Icon

    RayGreen Feb 20, 2014

    I look forward to the insights you will share on Qi. I am an on again, off again student of tai chi. I have had some beginner's experience with Qi. Gaining a better understanding of my experience would be welcome.

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