TEDxUCLA 2016: Push. Pull. Stretch.

Cognitive Kali


About Paul

Paul “The British Ninja” McCarthy has been studying movement and martial arts for over 20 years. He holds black belts in various martial arts including Filipino Martial Arts (FMA), Hapkido (4th degree) and Taekwondo (1st degree) and is an instructor of Savate, Muay Thai and Jeet Kune Do. With an MS from Indiana University in Kinesiology and through his experience coaching, teaching and managing various movement practices, Paul is fascinated by what makes the body ‘tick’.


Let’s imagine a future together. A future where our healthcare industry focuses on the prevention of disease and not just trying to cure it. Right now when we feel sick, we go to the doctors, take our prescription, and get on with our lives. What if we led lives that created barriers to disease instead of opening the gates to it? I believe there are better ways to improve health than just pharmaceuticals alone. How we eat, how we sleep, and how we move are vital components.

I’ve been focusing on how movement affects cognitive function. How we move defines who we are in significant ways. A movement begins in the brain, it’s a control center of the body. Emerging research is showing a little of how different movement activities affect the brain in different ways.

In a study just March of this year, Dr. Roger at UCLA showed that varied activities like gardening and dancing increases brain volume and decreases the risk of Alzheimer’s by 50 percent. Dr. Adele Diamond did a review study on movement research, which there’s fairly little, and found that by manual coordination, rhythmic motion, frequently crossing the midline, and hand-eye coordination were particularly valuable when it looked at, when looking at executive function in the brain. Blair & Raver in 2014 showed that real-world activities, such as martial arts, show more widespread cognitive benefit than targeted computerized training.

This is a picture of my brainwaves while stepping in place. As you can see from the concentration number, that doesn’t take a lot of energy for my brain. I’m going to be working with Dr. Crugolson from University of Victoria on a study that will compare well-learned aerobic activity to more complex activity. We believe the complexity provides some different benefits than just exercise alone.

This is a picture of my brain while doing Kali. As you can see I’m going to flip back and forth. There’s a big difference there. Now I wish I could tell you what those colored lines mean, but I have no idea. I’m not a neuroscientist, I’m a kinesiologist. I specialize in martial arts and movement. I don’t need those pictures to know that something different is going on there. I feel it, and all my training brothers feel it as well when we train.

So what is Kali? It’s a Filipino martial art known for its use of weapons and tools and progressive flow drills. Our instructor guru, Dan Inosanto, is a pioneer of this art. He’s been training and teaching it for 60+ years. And even though he turns 80 in a couple of months, he is still as sharp as a tack. This is one of the reasons I follow this research.

Another reason is a story that he frequently tells us during class about a student who came up to him and thanked him at a seminar. The student had been in an accident, lost his memory, couldn’t remember his wife or his kids. He attributes getting his memory back to a drill in Kali called Heaven Six. Let me show you what that looks like.

Good job. I think that deserves a round of applause.

So obviously that’s a pretty complex movement pattern. Does it have rhythmic motion? Crossing the midline by manual coordination? Absolutely. And it takes a while to learn it. When we were learning it, we found it difficult and we experienced something called “brain scramble,” which is a term I stole from Dr. O’Shea that we had from earlier.

Rather than me try to explain that. I’d like you to feel it. So I’d like everyone to take their left hand, snap the shape of a triangle. That’s cool for that sound guy earlier. Okay, take your right hand, snap the shape of a box, four corners. Good.

So for the two or three people in the room that can’t snap their fingers, I apologize. We’ll get to you later. You know what’s coming next. Try and do them together. Now there’s several types of people: there’s the people that try, there’s the people that just do like dodecahedrons all over the place. But how many people feel like it’s, it’s like your brain’s misfiring? It’s like the spinning beach ball on a Mac, right? That’s because you’re you’re making your brain work harder, you’re splitting its attention and you’re adding cognitive load. And just like a muscle, when you make it work harder it gets stronger.

I use Kali for a variety of different programs. I train elite athletes here on UCLA’s campus, the water polo team and the football team. I train police officers, I teach children with autism, and I’ve been training Daniel for about four or five years. Daniel has cerebral palsy. He has issues with his gait and his balance. And as you can see in the video, we’re using a modified Heaven Six drill here to kind of as contextual interference so he doesn’t really think about his walking. And by doing this, he can walk in circles as you can see, the camera has to catch up with him. He can walk backwards and forwards and laterally. You see on his face he really enjoys this, especially when he hits me in the hand. Seems to be quite often.

Rather me talk more about Kali, I’d like to show you more. I think that’ll be a lot more exciting, even with my accent. So let’s bring Guru Komrad, could we roll him back up?

So they’re going to do five motions: one two three four five, that’s the code, and it starts with basic and gets a little bit more complex. So as they go, it’s cob cob, now we’re crossing the midline, go into the low line, that heaven six we already saw, and standard six. Time. Good job. Yes.

So for them that’s a well-learned motion. They’ve done it thousands of times, it’s part of our warm-up in class. So we need to challenge them. So instead of one two three four five is the code, why don’t we try — and this is random, we didn’t practice this — two one three four one.

Time. Good job. Yes.

So while that was, that was still very good, did you see it kind of slow down a little bit as they were processing the code? Let’s just make it harder for them because I think that’s fun. This time, I’m going to give them the first number and they’re gonna start, and halfway through the motion I’ll give them the next number, and then the next, and then the next. Yes, it’s pretty impressive. So we’ll start with number four. Two. One. Five. Six.

Give me a minute on that one. So when I said six, it’s not part of the code. There’s no movement associated with that. They were meant to improvise. I was expecting more Kali. But I think if we get #RunningManUCLA going, it might go viral.

Where are we? Okay, the next drill. I’m going to take some more structure out of it instead of following a code, all they have to do is stay within the parameters. The parameters for this drill: you hit, I hit. Let’s see 20 clicks from Bradda.

Time. Good job. (applause)

See how the movement changed with that? Because of the random nature of the strikes, they became more expressive, used more problem solving, and became creative in ways not to get hit. If we take more of the structure away and we put it into a play environment, they’re going to spar, okay? What matters here is, is not what code you know, what the skillset that you can memorize, or standardized tests that you can complete. But if you can take the knowledge and apply it to truth in the moment, into a real-world application, that’s vital for learning and development.

So let’s see them spar. The only rule in this one is you hit whenever you want, or whenever you can.

Time. Whoa! (applause)

So I’ve shown a very small piece of Kali. As you can see there’s really an unlimited number of progressions and drills and combinations. But it’s not the only complex motor activity. I don’t have Mike and Alex up here just because they’re amazing world-class drummers. I believe drumming is very important. Whenever I drum, I get the brain scramble all the time.

So we’re gonna play a little game. Alex is gonna give us a quick beat. Mike’s gonna watch and listen and see if he can copy it. Our job is to see whether he gets it right.

Alex, first one. (drums) Let’s see you got, Mike. (drums) That’s pretty spot on, right? Yeah. Okay. Too easy.

Alex, ramp up the complexity. Let’s go. (drums) It’s getting a little harder, okay?

Let’s ramp it up more. Alex you’re a world-class drummer. You’ve been drumming for decades. Let loose brother, show us what you got. (drums) Woo! Wow! (drums)

The reason I’ve shown different types of movement is not because these are the new trends in classes that are on every corner, or we want you go to do this. Actually, my message is the opposite. We as a species have been doing this for millennia. No matter what country you’re from, what language you speak, what color your skin is, what faith you follow, movement crosses cultural boundaries. We’ll play, we all dance, we all make music, and we all fight sometimes to survive.

The big question is why. Why have these things stood the test of time? I believe it’s because they’re hard-wired into human development. I believe that we are as advanced a species as we are because we’ve been doing these things for thousands of years.

This begs the question, why are they being stripped from education systems and schools when we know they’re so valuable to a child’s development and even to an adult’s development? We know that structure and functional changes happen in the brain and body as a direct result of movement.

But imagine if we knew more. Imagine if we knew the specific effects of activities that are hundreds of thousands of years old and we used today’s technology and research methods and applied them to treat a variety of diseases and symptoms. Imagine going to the doctor and getting a movement prescription instead of a drug prescription. Yoga and tai chi to reduce hypertension stress and anxiety. Traditional karate for kids with ADHD because of its heavy focus on discipline. Or Kali for cognitive disorders like Alzheimer’s or dementia.

I think we can create this world simply by shifting a little of the focus of research from drugs that can sometimes be costly and have negative side effects to movement which is relatively cheap and safe.

But we can also make a personal choice. Leave this event today and start your own movement revolution, no matter whether it’s drumming or dancing or martial arts. If you do that you’ll find not just another exercise class or hobby but a life-changing practice that will improve your health in ways that pharmaceuticals never can.

My next slide is here because I’ve talked about Kali as a way to develop athletes and students and people with movement issues. Well let’s not forget it’s an ancient martial art born on the battlefield and still used in modern warfare today. Carenza, which is a form of shadow boxing with the weapons, really shows the soul of the art well. But also, it shows within a single-movement practice individuals can express it in very different ways, as you’ll see.

Please join me, gents.

I’m going to close by talking about respect. Respect is a core value in martial arts. And today we’re gonna show you a traditional Kali salutation. We’re doing this, we’re paying respects to you as the audience, we’re paying respects to our instructor guru, Dan Inosanto and all of our teachers, and to the art of Kali. But please listen to the words carefully, because I think they apply to everyone everywhere and not just Kali. Because for us, Kali is not just a martial art. It is a way of life.

I present myself with an open mind and open heart. I acknowledge the hand of friendship is superior to the hand of war. I will take what I’ve learned with my mind and my heart. May we shed no blood. Thank you for your attention.