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Tai Chi: The kinesthetic nootropic?

I recently watched an old interview with Bruce Lee where he described the philosophy behind Tai Chi by saying:

The idea is to always keep flowing, they believe that flowing water never goes stale.

When I first heard him say that, I thought it to be semi-profound; then, I came across an article claiming that elderly people practicing Tai Chi a minimum of three times a weak showed increased cognition and brain size when compared to control, which convinced me that I understated Bruce’s words.

The study was done in Shanghai, China where they took 120 elderly people and split them into groups that did Tai Chi, walking, social interaction and nothing over 40 weeks. MRIs taken at 20 and 40 weeks showed that compared to no intervention, the group that did Tai Chi had a significant increase in brain volume as well as several neurophysiologic measures (Mattis Dementia Rating scale, Trailmaking test and Auditory Verbal Learning test), the group that only participated in social interaction also displayed significant brain size increase but showed fewer improvements on neurophysiologic measures and finally, the walking group showed no change. I found this conclusion to be counter to the contemporary ideology surrounding aerobic activity as it regards brain function. This paper indicates that their may be a greater significance in the ability of non-aerobic activity to influence cognition and brain capacity compared to aerobic.

In trying to understand the findings better, I can’t help but contemplate Bruce Lee’s words. If a person that participates in Tai Chi is able to “keep flowing” and subsequently increase flow, I could see why the brain mass would increase. The only flow I could imagine the ancients referring to would be blood flow. With that said, increasing cerebral blood flow, within normal physiologic range, should trend towards utilizing the most of one’s capacity of mind. Thus, if Tai Chi is directly correlated to increasing brain size, is it safe to consider it a kinesthetic nootropic?


  1. Shawn   •  

    Nice article.

    • farhood   •  

      Thanks for the kind words, Shawn!

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