Tae Kwon Do
I just recently saw a fantastic TEDTalk about a relatively new theory. To sum it up, it says that I am far more than a mere genome, which basically differentiates me from you by a very tiny margin within the building blocks of life, and am rather what the speaker, Sebastian Seung, Computational Neuroscientist, referred to as a Connectome — the sum of the hundreds of millions of synaptic connections and exchanges that are constantly happening in my brain. In short, that while I was handed a certain hardware configuration, my memories, experiences, etc. actually change the functionality of that “standard issue” hardware and makes me who I am. The talk went on to explain how these translate into deeper consciousness and such, but I want to discuss this core idea: “I am my Connectome.”
Personally, I have always argued the case for experience defining everything, but here is a scientific theory that addresses this very thing. The statement may sound, off hand, almost like a statement of the obvious, but, howobvious is it, really? Have we really considered the total implications? 

Consider this: by the time you were born you had already created a series of synaptic connections based on the experiences that you’d already had, such as life in the womb (let’s leave out the questions about when that life actually begins, please). From the first moment of consciousness, or sub-conscious interaction with the world within and outside our being, experiences are forming connections to which we will return time and time again as we build upon them, make reference to them, delete them, remake them, etc. throughout our lives. Each memory and experience creates countless such connections, and it is these connections that begin to help determined how future ones are made. What I mean is that the experience and memory of burning yourself on a hot stove, for example, creates pathways that we build on that will hopefully, unless you are a masochist, keep you, or at least minimize the likelihood, that you will choose to burn yourself on a hot stove again. If there came a time when that choice was made, the one to burn yourself on the stove, certain pathways would build upon, from, or replace the existing ones to record the new experience, creating a new set (or an edited set – whichever way you choose to look at it) of connections on which to build.

So, you might ask yourself right about now, what does this have to do with Martial Arts?

Well, stop me if you’ve heard this one:

A White Belt walks into a dojo and… they have a huge amount of experience to draw from. It may or may not beMartial Arts experience, but it is life experience nonetheless, and it will define, color, and influence their training, their abilities, their perceptions, their perspectives, the things they learn, and the way they learn them, as well as those very things for everyone else around them.

Take, for example, a simple, middle punch. We’ve seen all kinds of deliveries for this basic technique, everything from the guided missile to the grab-a-glass-of-water, from the thumb-breaker to the thumb-stabber, each one a choice, whether conscious or not, based on experiences and their respective connections. The thing is that many instructors tend to see these as walls to be broken down rather than useful tools in the instruction of the individual. If I can make connections and relations between a new concept for a student and an existing one from their individual experience, I can create and build on new connections that are founded on deeper, more permanent ones, making the new ones stronger. That, of course, is a double-edged sword because, should I intentionally or not, build a connection that is not healthy for my student, then I have done a potentially long-term disservice to that person. 

More exciting though, because we are all experienced in something, we can all learn from each other, regardless of rank. Our different backgrounds and histories give us a hugely varied perspective on each style we practice, and, as such, in being open to share our points of view and to listen and examine the points of view of our training partners, we can offer and be the recipients of brand new ways to look at, learn from, and work on the techniques, principles, and concepts of our chosen arts — on the mat and beyond.

For me, it additionally confirms another suspicion I’ve had for some time: that everything that we learn or do, whether new or old, is an interpretation of something we have already had an experience in, as, because in the act of living we build an ever expanding library of experiential reference, we can, consciously or sub-consciously, find a connection between the new information and one or more of the memories we already hold — however tenuous that connection might be. 

Ironically, our experience also defines how tenuous that connection can be for us and the nature of the connection that is made. So, the difference in elasticity between a connection accepted by  an engineer versus that accepted by a surrealist artist is, in all likelihood, completely different because the engineer’s experience is grounded in more measurable specifics than the surrealist. Where the engineer may look at a punch and arrive at a mathematical equation for the force that punch delivered, the surrealist may arrive at a fish and be just as satisfied and justified. In other words, it is my specific set of experiences and reconfiguration of the hardware that I was issued that has lead me to these conclusions. Where have your experiences lead you? I’d love to hear.