Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Mushin No Shin

Mushin no shin; mind of no mind.

The image to the right is of Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai where many Japanese martial arts cliches were part of the story line, including mushin no shin; mind of no mind. I particularly like this mushin no shin inspired message - train to act without thinking. Not a lot of training is required because most people act without thinking anyway.

Mushin no shin is often associated with behaviour that is reflexive or instinctive requiring little or no thought or cognition. Nature beat the mushin no shin originators, advocates and philosophers (or would-be philosophers) to the punch. Emotion is evolutionarily designed to motivate and support survival behaviour with no thought process. Emotion includes action tendencies that require no thought process, and nature even supports this instinctive behaviour by making physiological changes that support the motivated behaviour. Mushin no shin would appear to be reinventing a poorer version of the wheel.

Mushin no shin is more than mind of no mind. It is also emotion of no emotion. Mushin no shin is designed to circumvent both the amydala and neocortex, both emotion and cognition. Mushin no shin is arrogent in that way. An underlying assumption of mushin no shin is that millions of years of survival experience can be improved upon.

A part of mushin no shin would be described as 'overlearning.' Overlearning refers to the training of a skill such that it becomes instinctive. This behaviour will be elicited in a particular situation with little or no thought, and mostly without the necessity of any motivation from feelings. Overlearning, in and of itself, can have the effect of intervening in the appraisal process which defines a stimulus in a particular way. The appraisal process is responsible for an elicited emotion. Overlearning, in and of itself, can result in the appraisal of a life-threatening stimulus to be irrelevant rather than a threat thereby not eliciting a fear or anger emotion.

Problem solving 101 - identify the problem. Fair enough. We have developed combat behaviours that have improved on nature. But these behaviours are affected to varying degrees by emotions. Your particular activity may teach you learned tactics and techniques (aka behaviours), but they have to be supported or at least not thwarted by emotion. What emotion does your activity teach?

Mushin no shin teaches no emotion. You then should analyse the cost-benefit relationship. The benefits will be espoused, but what is the cost? There is always a cost. The cost is that the individual does not experience the physiological and motivational benefits that evolution instilled in emotion. You do not get increased strength, speed, endurance, pain tolerance and mental focus that are designed to increase your chances of survival.

Do not write off emotion so quickly. Firstly, we are here because of emotion. Secondly, a three thousand, cross-cultural warrior tradition, 'berserkers,' has been used to empower warriors to engage in fight behaviour. It involves enflaming emotion rather than negating it. Women self defence courses often teach to turn fear into anger. Anger is evolutionarily designed to support fight behaviour. It is now you and evolution against your attacker. What survival activities often fear is fear.

Major Greg Mawkes (retired), when explaining how he went about improving the close combat capabilities of the Australian Special Air Service Regiment (SAS), explained that troopers were trained to have controlled aggression. Firstly, aggression is an emotion. No mushin no shin. They are trained for an emotion so they receive the survival benefits bequeathed by Mother Nature. Secondly, aggression, according to Plutchik, is a blend of anticipation and anger. A positive and negative emotion. Both are approach behaviours, which you encourage in a fighter. The negative emotion narrows the behaviour-thought repertoire, while a positive emotion broadens them. The SAS want the fight action tendency of anger and the broadened behaviour-thought repertoire of a positive emotion.

The basic message of this post is - DO NOT train to act without thinking. Think about your training.


  1. Thank you. I have reached the point in my training that my instructor has began to emphasize mushin. He has tried to explain it but usually ends with "its something I can't really teach, you just have to develop it." Please, don't get me wrong. My instructor is excellent. Its just sometimes I have a difficult time picking up what he is putting down. Your information on the concept is extremely helpful.


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