Years ago, Janet O’Shea fell in love with a South Indian classical dance form known as bharata natyam. That passion led the professor of World Arts & Cultures/ Dance to South Asia, then to graduate studies in Berkeley and Riverside and teaching gigs in London. It also led her to write a book on the subject. Many of her colleagues expected her to keep delving more deeply into South Asian dance for the rest of her career.

But when she came to UCLA in 2008, something unexpected happened. She fell in love again, this time with martial arts. Now, studying Filipino stick fighting with a martial arts instructor and a neuroscientist, O’Shea is raising new questions about cognition, movement and human adaptability.

Why South Asian dance?

It was the technique that attracted me to bharata natyam, and to one style in particular that came out of a 19th-century courtesan tradition. I loved its physicality, subtlety and powerful female stage presence.

Why did you shift away from dance?

I see it more as a transition toward martial arts. Though I’m not performing or choreographing, I still have that dance-as-methodology approach. As a dancer, you think with your body. You learn to organize movement. That’s very similar to what’s required of a martial artist.

How long have you practiced martial arts?

I’m pretty much a newcomer. I dabbled when I was in graduate school, and then a couple of years ago I started taking a jeet kune do class at the Sunset Canyon Recreation Center. In the last year or so, I’ve become much more obsessive, training every day. This quarter I’m teaching a Healthy Campus Initiative–funded class that explores the links between martial arts and personal empowerment. Basically, with martial arts, it’s like I felt with bharata natyam at first. I wanted to do it all the time. That is necessary for me — that love of the practice — and then the research questions come out of that.

How has this newfound passion inspired your research?

In sparring, you’re always problem solving. There’s all this creativity that goes on. Plus, it’s a chess game: You’re trying to think several moves ahead, and then your opponent is always changing what he or she is doing. So it’s a combination of strategy and creativity. I found I was constantly confronting the limits of my mind to take in the information I was being given. I’m sure I’ve had this experience with other movement forms, but with martial arts it was really pronounced. Sometimes I’d watch the teacher demonstrate a movement, and I just wouldn’t get it. It was like I couldn’t see it.

So I asked myself, what is that? And I realized that there’s this cognitive training that goes on. You have to learn how to see movement before you can transfer that into what you do in your body. That’s when I started thinking about martial arts in relation to cognitive processes like mental rotation, impulse control, processing speed and lateral differentiation.

How did you start exploring that relationship?

I put together a blurb for a potential grant proposal about researching cognition and martial arts and emailed some neuroscientists. Bob [Dr. Robert] Bilder, who’s the co-director of UCLA’s Tennenbaum Center for the Biology of Creativity, replied, and we met. He said there’s loads of research about how meditation and soft-style martial arts like tai chi are good for the brain. There was also research regarding hard-style martial arts like karate and tae kwon do, but a lot of that dealt with forms or something you do by yourself. That’s a lot of memorization, but with sparring or some of the more dynamic drills you do with a partner, you have to constantly be problem solving.

So I said to Bob, “No, no. We hit each other.” It was very interesting to see the change in the conversation to something really specific, like how is your brain working when there’s a fist coming toward you and you have to get out of the way? So I came in with big strokes on a big canvas, and Bob helped hone it down to this incredible level of detail so it could be persuasive and testable.

What was your next step?

One great thing about UCLA is the interest here in collaboration and exchange. Bob and I realized that there hadn’t been much research into hybrid, dynamic martial arts styles like Filipino martial arts, which has a long history but is also very responsive to change. So after meeting with Bob, I walked across campus and talked to Paul McCarthy, who directs the martial arts programs for UCLA Recreation. Both Paul and I had studied Filipino martial arts. He’s a much more advanced practitioner, but we had that common language. We began to talk about designing drills that would bring out the cognitive aspects of Filipino martial arts. He suggested focusing on stick fighting.

What exactly is stick fighting?

Filipino martial arts is the umbrella category. The stick arts are called kali or eskrima. You have two sticks, one in each hand, and they’re about 2 feet long. Then you learn these sequences that are constantly changing as you alter one variable.

What are the traits of a skilled stick fighter?

Coordination is a big part of it. When you start to work with the weapons — and I think this is also true of sports like tennis — you need to train yourself where to look and where not to look. So the first thing that everybody does is look at the opponent’s sticks, but you can easily be distracted. The important thing is to train yourself to use your peripheral vision, so that you’re actually looking at your partner’s or your opponent’s body. Often, you can tell just from their collarbones or their shoulders where the strike will come from.

How did you test the impact of stick fighting on cognition?

We got a bunch of participants together. We had a control group that took a conditioning class so we could differentiate between the impact of exercise, in general, versus Filipino martial arts. Then, we had a test group do the martial arts training Paul designed. For eight weeks, they trained three days a week for an hour and a quarter.

Before the first training, we did a series of computer-based cognitive tests on both groups, and then we tested them again after the eight weeks. Though we don’t have our data yet, it was astounding how quickly the test group learned. In a short period of time, they were able to move into these two-limb sequences while working with a partner and putting in footwork. What we found is that the martial arts group showed a greater improvement in mental rotation performance. It was a really interesting example of human adaptability.

What have you learned so far from the overall experience?

Martial arts are about developing what you don’t have while using what you have, as well. I’m inspired by that. As humans, we are extraordinarily adaptable. And the more we realize that, the more adaptable we’ll be.