Words: David Cormier, PhD
The Problem: Friendship
It is a common response when asking someone why they train Brazilian Jiu Jitsu; “It is all about the relationships,” “It has been about the people,” “We are a family,” or “I appreciate the people I’ve met.”
This reminds me of a joke circulating the internet, it goes like this: the most impressive miracle in the Christian New Testament is a 30-year-old with 12 close friends (well 11 close friends, but you get the idea). It is funny because it is true, it speaks to a real problem in America today, the challenge of forming and maintaining meaningful interpersonal relationships in adulthood.
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu helps. It is a significant investment in one’s self and one of the dividends it pays is in the form of deep, meaningful relationships. When and why this bonding happens might be a result of the natural way humans select close partners.
Kyle Watson, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt, team coach and owner of Watson Martial Arts in St. Louis Missouri once said to the class in a passing remark, “That is something special about Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, no matter where you go, it is the same Jiu Jitsu.” According to research on brain plasticity, neural patterns, and human attraction it may be the same people too.
Can science explain why we like the people we train with?
The Research: Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Will Change Your Mind
According to research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) (2016) people are more attracted to those whose emotions are easily identifiable. Their conclusion is this, a person’s ability to accurately read another person’s affective state (emotions, feelings, intentions) has a positive impact on both attraction when choosing partners and cooperation when executing a complex task like drilling a sequence of techniques in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
Much of the research is based on the idea that “Finding the ‘right’ cooperation partner is an important task for individuals living in complex environments that require social interaction and cooperation” and that the reward response in our brain is triggered, a dopamine release, when we select the right drilling partner. This is something being reinforced on the mat every time we gather to drill.
According to research beginning in 1949 human brains are always changing and adapting, physically and cognitively. The two, the physical and cognitive (thinking) parts of the brain, science says, are connected. For example, mastering patterns (such as a sequence of moves in a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu drilling session or learning the piano) ingrains new, unique and predictable physical neurological patterns onto the brain’s neural network. This is called brain plasticity.
If two or more people are learning the same thing together, over time their neural networks will begin look alike, this is especially true if what they are learning is a complex task in a complex social and physical environment, like a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu gym.
When the neural networks in the brains of two people become like each other over time they begin to more accurately identify each other’s feelings and become closer and better interaction partners and overtime closer friends.
The Application: “Drillers Make Killers” and Friends
Consider the process by which you select training partners for drilling. You are looking for something specific and predictable in a partner whether you are aware of it or not. Therefore, the frequency, importance and rewards associated with selecting the right cooperating partner are magnified in a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu academy.
“To accomplish a common goal, interaction partners must understand and continuously update information about their partner’s current intentions, motivation, and affect, anticipate the other’s behavior, and adapt their own behavior accordingly.” These are of course also the qualities we appreciate in good drilling partners.
Part of training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is learning how to be a good drilling partner, which often translates into having the right energy and the right response at the right time to maximize learning for both people. According to this study emotional synergy may be equally important.
The interesting part of the ongoing research on human attraction is this, what determines our ability to identify emotions and form bonds is the similarity between the neural networks in our brains and the proximity and intimacy with the other person. Two things central to learning Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
The more similar the neural patterns in people’s brains, the more intimate they will be with another person, the more easily and confidently they will recognize another’s emotions, the more likely they will want to be around those people. And therein lies a critical component of what makes Brazilian Jiu Jitsu so special and so valuable for all of us who train.
To maximize your training and experience all of what the art has to offer, be open and honest with your training partners on the mat, communicate often and reap the social and physical rewards of the sublime art of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
Anders, S., de Jong, R., Beck, C., Haynes, J-D., and Ethofer, T. (2016). A neural link between affective understanding and interpersonal attraction. PNAS, 113(16), E2248-E2257.
Schaefer, N., Rotermund, C., Blumrich, E., Lourenco, M. V., Joshi, P., Hegemann, R. U., & …Paidi, R. K. (2017). The malleable brain: Plasticity of neural circuits and behavior – A review from students to students. Journal of Neurochemistry, 142(6), 790-811.