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Sensory Training for Archery

Years ago I started doing archery as a way to get exercise and have fun doing so. Now I am an archery instructor and a personal trainer here in Toronto. Go figure.

Since then however I have noticed something unusual... My skills in visual observation have improved dramatically.

Now I admit its not super-human or anything like that.

But it is definitely more than it used to be. Now you might chalk it up to the Zen benefits of archery, which gradually hones your mind and increases your ability to concentrate on a singular target while still remaining aware of your surroundings.

Which got me thinking... If it is possible to train your eyes to be more observant using archery and similar tasks, is it possible to train the other senses as well?

Well one example is that people who have lived through a fire become hypersensitive to the smell of smoke. That sense has become attuned so that whenever they smell smoke the memories of the fire they lived through comes flooding back to them at just the whiff of smoke. For me I have lived through my parents' barn burning down when I was 5 years old and my neighbours' house burning down when I was 8. I am perfectly aware that people can become more sensitive to smells due to strong memories.

Legends about Blind Samurais is another example of why I think it is possible.

Now I admit this is a concept from Japanese folklore, but the concept is simple: The warrior trains their other senses over time and develops above average ability to hear and sense movement around them...

And as proof that learning such martial arts is not impossible for a blind person, check out this video from the CBC of a Richmond Hill resident who is blind and is learning the Israeli Martial Art of Krav Maga.

Another reason why I think it is possible is because of documented cases of men who went through the Vietnam War and similar conflict zones who, due to their circumstances and extreme need for survival, developed unusually high skills of observation.

In pop culture there are a variety of references to military groups attempting to deliberately train soldiers or agents to have above average senses and observation skills. One such film that I am fond of is the 1997 film "The Assignment".

The beauty of "The Assignment" is that it is also based on the real life true story of how Carlos the Jackal was captured.

But if you're looking for the cream of all pop culture references to developing "super senses" the top of the list would be the TV show "The Sentinel" which ran from 1996 to 1999... However in the TV show they make out that the main character has a combination of genetic advantage and hypersensitivity training that was developed during his years in the military.

However that TV show isn't really a good example because the writers of the show went overboard and gave him the ability to communicate with ghosts, spirit animals and visions of the future... Which is just plain ridiculous and the show was eventually cancelled at the end of 3rd season so they created an extra half season just so the storyline could be wrapped up.

My last example of why I think it is possible to do Sensory Training isn't from pop culture.

Its from Ashtanga Yoga, the 8-fold path of purification.
  1. Yama     Moral codes
  2. Niyama     Self-purification and study
  3. Asana     Posture
  4. Pranayama     Breath control
  5. Pratyahara     Withdrawing of the mind from the senses
  6. Dharana     Concentration
  7. Dhyana     Deep meditation
  8. Samadhi     Union with the object of meditation
Of these topics there are several that deal with sensory awareness, but the most obvious of these is Pratyahara (withdrawing of the mind from the senses). The practice involves deliberately weaning oneself from the senses one at a time so that eventually you simply fail to notice things.

As human beings we regularly do this without even noticing it. We can narrow our focus visually when watching a TV screen (the kitchen could be on fire and we wouldn't notice). We tune out noises that we don't want to hear. We ignore tastes, smells and pains in our body, especially when distracted.

Now imagine doing the opposite. Sit in a coffee shop or some other public place and listen to other people breathing. If you close your eyes you can concentrate on this task even more. Listen for minute sounds and what you discover is that you can hear many different things around you, but your mind typically doesn't listen to these things because it is so busy tuning such things out.

Another thing you can do is play observational memory games with friends. This will be mostly your eyes being tested and trained.

The thing is that isn't your eyes, ears, nose, tongue or skin that is hypersensitive. Unless we have a disability like blindness or deafness can all do these things naturally anyway. What is different is our brain pathways...

To understand brain pathways and how it interprets the senses imagine a map with a network of highways in the shape of your brain. When you are a teenager these neural pathways are still growing and expanding, and depending on which neural pathways you use more of those pathways will become thicker and stronger as your brain reinforces those pathways.

So for example if you do a lot of math your brain will reinforce the mental pathways that control your ability to do math functions. Over time your brain will increasingly be attuned to solving math problems because that is part of the brain that is being used and exercised most often.

Memory, creativity, your ability to make decisions all stem from various mental pathways which are used, not used, depending on how often you do various mental activities.

Now by the time you reach adulthood many of these 'highways' have become super highways and they're dug in there pretty deep so that they are pretty difficult to change. However they're not impossible to change.

Lets say for example you were really good at math during your teens but at the age of 20 you stopped worrying about math and went to university to become a French teacher. By the time you finish university your brain will have re-wired itself so that it is now more focused on social skills involving interactions and also on language and communication skills. You will still continue to use the math parts of your brain, but they will fall into disrepair like an old highway that few people drive on anymore.

Now lets apply this concept to your observational skills.

If you practice and hone your ability to observe things every day, either with your eyes, ears or other senses, then with time your brain will reinforce various mental pathways which affect your abilities to observe your surroundings.

Which is what archery has apparently done for me. It has increased my visual observation skills without me even realizing it, re-wiring my brain pathways so I am now more observant.

Conceptually it is different from the various physical exercises I usually discuss, but the idea remains the same: If you practice a particular skill you will with time become good at it.

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