I have written before about the effect of tai chi practice on the mind. However, not everybody might immediately associate taijiquan with the development of the actual physical brain, though most, of course, will recognise that there is an element of physical exercise in the tai chi movements which will affect, for example, the muscles, bones and organs of the body. (On the other hand, there are many who are surprised by how physically demanding taijiquan can be, especially if they have only been exposed to images of floaty, extremely slow tai chi performed in costumes of silk and diaphanous chiffon.)
A recent study using MRI scanning technology, Tai Chi Training Evokes Significant Changes in Brain White Matter Network in Older Women, has suggested that tai chi is better than simple walking exercise at improving the structure of the brain, particularly in the way that clusters of cells are able to interconnect and function efficiently. (The actual paper is pretty hard to follow, but the conclusion puts its results in reasonably plain language.) The study suffers from the limitation that the sample groups are quite small and are all older women, while the exact nature of the tai chi training is, moreover, not specified - but a major advantage of it is that it compared groups who had been practising tai chi or walking regularly for quite a long time, more than six years. (Too often, studies only look at short-term tai chi interventions of only a few weeks or months.) It is to be hoped that, as the scientific evidence for the effects of tai chi training grows, similar studies might look at both sexes and a wider cross section of the population, not least to avoid reinforcing the popular and mistaken perception that taijiquan is only suitable for the more senior citizen.
It will come as no surprise to those who have trained in taijiquan for any significant period of time that tai chi can have an impact on the brain. For a start, the practising of tai chi forms (ie sequences of movements) requires quite a feat of memory: some forms can be as long as 108 postures, for example, and take up to 25 minutes to perform. These days, it seems to me, we are not often required to remember large amounts of anything after we leave school; we can too easily just look something up on the internet or make a note on our smartphone. In addition, the sheer concentration required to carry out a sequence of complex movements over a period of time places considerable demands on the tai chi player. This complexity and the attention to detail that is required to perform tai chi well and with full understanding also point to the fact that one does not simply "do" tai chi; one has to learn it, even study it in some depth. Again, this is not always something what we adults need to do once we leave school, and therefore has the potential to reawaken mental faculties that we may not have used for some time.
Furthermore, there is unsurprising evidence that tai chi can have a considerable effect on motor control, an aspect of fitness which is closely linked to the health of the brain. Motor fitness is seen as the counterpart to cardiovascular fitness (ie the strength of your heart and lungs). While cardiovascular exercise can also have a beneficial effect on brain health (because of better blood flow and the production of chemicals which enhance brain growth and performance), better motor fitness will result in improvements in coordination, balance, speed and power.
Many people take up tai chi because they hope it will help them cope with the chronic stress which is endemic in contemporary society. The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi is a little equivocal about the evidence that tai chi can help you deal with stressful situations: "results are mixed on whether tai chi helps improve executive function - that is cognitive skills related to multitasking, managing time effectively, and making decisions or doing a challenging mental task while maintaining one's balance," the authors say. However, it is possible that tai chi training is able to reduce stress levels generally and given that stress hormones such as cortisol are known to be damaging to the brain, this may be another way in which tai chi can contribute to the preservation of mental faculties.
As our population ages, it is natural that we should want to retain our mental capacity as long as possible and avoid what is termed "cognitive decline". It is now well known that physical well-being, social interaction, participation in leisure activities and learning of new skills can have a protective effect in this regard. We also know that the brain is capable of growth and change over the course of the greater part of its life, so the multifaceted nature of tai chi training would seem to offer much that is of benefit both physically and mentally as we grow older. However, I believe that it has much to offer those who are younger as well, even those who are already quite sporty but who might benefit from a deeper awareness of how the body is functioning and how the mind can influence performance, as well as those who could do with being generally sharper and more confident in their ability to keep learning well beyond the end of their formal education.
As ever in the field of the study of tai chi and its effectiveness, more research is needed!
Andrew Howard is a Chen-style Tai Chi Instructor teaching in West Dorset, UK.