I read a journal article recently where the researchers compared the brains of people that were long-term tai chi practitioners to the brains of a control group. It's not too surprising that differences were found. The researchers said, " These findings indicate that long-term tai chi chuan practice could induce regional structural change and also suggest tai chi chuan might share similar patterns of neural correlates with meditation and aerobic exercise."
Looking a little deeper at what they say, tai chi practice was associated with significantly thicker cortex in several areas of the brain. A thicker cortex means that part of the brain is being used more and is probably more effective. Since I am not a medical professional, I had to look these areas up. A sulcus is an inward fold on the surface of the brain. A gyrus is an outward fold on the surface of the brain.
The medial occipitotemporal sulcus and the lingual sulcus are related to spatial navigation - knowing where your body is in space (Read more about this topic here.) The insula sulcus is related to anxiety sensitivity, peacefulness, and relaxation. The middle frontal sulcus is responsible for motor planning - in other words it is related to organizing and executing movement. It also helps with integrating emotion and cognition in a way very similar to meditation. It is also similar to changes seen related to exercise by the elderly.
The precentral gyrus is part of the primary motor cortex. It is the area responsible for controlling voluntary muscle movement. This seems to explain why tai chi helps reduce falls. The superior temporal gyrus is the area that has the primary auditory cortex. It is the area responsible for processing sounds and understanding language. It is part of social cognition. The authors used a lot of medical terms to explain that they didn't know how this part of the brain relates to tai chi.
To summarize, brain changes are noted in tai chi practitioners. These changes are similar to changes seen in the brains of people who meditate and those who get regular aerobic exercise. In addition, changes are seen in the parts of the brain related to voluntary muscle movement (preventing falls). This is not seen in meditators or those that get regular exercise. Therefore, tai chi shows indications of helping us develop peacefulness and relaxation, control movement, and understand how our body moves through space.
The entire article can be read here.
© 2013 Eric Borreson