Systema: Mirror Neurons

July 03, 2012 by Andrea Bisaz  

It is interesting to see, how keen observation of human behaviour can be translated into extremely efficient and deceptive fighting principles. What I am about to discuss is essentially nothing new to the experienced Systema practitioner. In fact, we have heard Mikhail Ryabko and Vladimir Vasiliev talk about these principles over and over again. What is fascinating, however, is to see these principles verified by current research in neuroscience. Understanding in simple terms how things actually work (or might work) in the nervous system can help us to be more specific and successful in our training.

Have you ever wondered how we can sense other people’s movements, intentions and emotions? How we read facial expressions or can control expressing our emotions? Can we really trust our gut feelings? What makes our movements visible or invisible and how does conscious thought and tension interfere with intuitive subconscious action? Where does fighting originate in us? ... In other words, what makes Systema such an effective combat art?

All of these questions have something in common, namely Mirror Neurons – MNs (neuron means nerve cell).

Until recently, it was always thought that we would figure out the opponents intentions and movements by doing this. We first observing them, then create a mental picture and evaluate their movement and expressions through intellectual thinking (cognition), based on our experience and acquired rules. The discovery of MNs has shown us that our brains have a much more elegant and efficient ways.

In short, when we observe another person, our brain will immediately perform this person’s actions using MNs in our own “brain programs”. This happens without us activating our muscles (primary motor maps) and without our conscious awareness. However, everything else is as if we were doing it for real. Our brains will activate hormones and link up emotions and feelings as well as memories just as if we were moving ourselves. The only conscious experience (if any at all) we usually have of this mirroring is a “gut feeling”. This elegant method allows us to immediately figure out an opponent’s intentions via our own intentions that we would have, if using those movements, facial expressions, etc.

As we know from my previous article (Systema, Neurological Reaction Time and Learning), before we become aware of it, our brains will now formulate a response to this observed and mirrored action. If we manage to stay calm and relaxed it is almost like our brains are on autopilot. By the time we react we’ve already been well engaged in our brains. We can see that our actions are starting to intermingle with our opponent’s actions. In order to activate our muscles and avoid confusion however, our brains have specialised areas, which are tracking our movements, distinguishing them from the mirrored movements.

Interestingly, if our own body response turns out as expected our visual picture of ourselves in the brain will be cancelled, so we are not aware of it any longer and can focus entirely on our external opponent(s). We only have an active visual picture of the opponent in our brain. However, if we make a mistake or get caught out, the conscious visual picture of our action remains, thus giving us an opportunity to learn and rectify this mistake. So our nervous system is constantly assessing our performance and comparing it to our expectations.

Since our response is very much tainted by our own training and experiences, these MNs work best for dealing with opponents of similar or familiar background. As soon as we cross cultural, gender or species barriers our MN response will have to be paired with thinking (cognitive) processes based on learned and stored information or past experiences. This requires a lot more brainpower and thus is much slower.

We can therefore see that when a Systema practitioner works with adversaries who do not possess motor programs that respond in an effective defensive way to our innocent, natural movements, their reactions to our actions will be inappropriately delayed. It will be confusing to them or even invisible until it is too late. By the time they experience our intention, they are already heavily under attack. This is what makes our actions invisible. They are simply invisible in the context of their meaning and since the brain sees things instead of the eyes (they just gather and transmit light), those actions can be literally invisible to the brain!

Facial expressions are particularly interesting as they are created from two brain parts, a conscious motor part (Premotor cortex) and a part called Insula, which stores and processes emotions, internal organ sensations, pain maps etc. In other words, it is produced by a dual modus of conscious and subconscious sources. In reverse, when we read a face we run the expression through our MNs, which link into the same two brain areas. This gives us a reading of the voluntary expression, as well as the subconscious emotional expression. This is how we can immediately pick if a facial expression is not genuine, even if we actually can’t put a finger exactly on what is wrong. For instance, a fake smile looks precisely like that…fake. This is a typical situation where you should trust your gut feeling! (It is worth remembering that body posture typically shows emotional influences as well).

 MNs however do not simply respond to visual information of things around us, they also respond to sounds, touch, temperature and abstract symbols like written text and possibly even electromagnetic field changes. That is how we can enjoy books and become emotionally involved in stories. That is why certain sounds can either make our hair stand up or make us feel relaxed. That is also why a certain touch feels threatening to us, where as another might appear harmless.

All this sensory information can activate our MNs in a multimodal way, thus our external world fuses and becomes blurred with our “private” inner world. Like it or not, we are experiencing through our own sensory maps and motor programs our external world as if living it internally and very directly…other peoples actions become our own actions with all OUR associated emotions. This is called “Embodied Simulation” (ES).

In addition to the external triggers of our MNs, we can also trigger them through internal means, which is through our imagination. This, for instance, is exactly what happens when we daydream and visualize a combat scene. We actually relive it internally through embodied simulation…hormone activation, emotions and everything.

Interestingly, we currently know of two types of MNs: broadly congruent mirror neurons (BCMN) and strictly congruent mirror neurons (SCMN). The mixed application of these MNs allows us to learn as if we would have a zoom lens. We can appreciate the general-purpose related movements (BCMN) as well as specific intricate actions (SCMN). BCMN are approximately twice as common in our motor maps and are the MNs we use initially for the ‘principled’ learning of Systema. The more familiar we become with Systema, the more we are able to activate SCMNs and thus, see specific details.


Systema: Mirror Neurons, Applications

So how can we take advantage of all this knowledge in our training of Systema?


The first and often stressed as the most important aspect seems to be that we should train with mental calmness (relaxation). If we become tense in our minds through whatever reason, such as fear, impatience etc., we will inhibit MN action thus, we are failing to connect with our opponents and we will struggle to figure them out efficiently.

In order to minimise being infected by mirroring aggression and behaviour of our adversaries we also need to become aware of our “triggers.” What is our emotional baggage and what triggers a stress response (sympathetic nerve response) in us? Systema has many helpful and innovative breathing exercises to help us discover and overcome these idiosyncrasies.

It is also important that when we are training a response to this mirroring, we train with the trigger action!! In other words, when people simply train static techniques out of context, they will not necessarily connect them to a recognised trigger-threat, thus their reaction time will be greatly delayed. In Systema, we tend to work in what is called “play mode”, meaning that we constantly integrate our movement responses with the trigger (mirror) movements. This is crucial to decrease reaction time for combat learning. Interestingly we also see this a lot in nature e.g. young lion cubs play-hunting with one another. If we also use realistic and aggressive trigger-threats (from time to time), we can furthermore train a calm response to an aggressive action by interphasing some control between the MN action and our response.

This is also one reason why we punch and slap each other in order to reduce fear-induced tension and train proper responses to physical insults.


We are often taught not to look at an opponent but rather to use peripheral vision. This makes sense when we are in the thick of fighting, as peripheral vision focuses on movement and positioning rather than specific expressions and form, and encourages a more relaxed brain state. Peripheral vision will also improve special awareness of adversaries during multiple attacks, whilst still activating MNs. However, there are times and places where facial (and body) observation is useful to enhance mirror information for us. Of course this also applies when socially interacting with others and when attempting to defuse a situation. In short, use common sense.


I think one of the most fascinating and effective principles of Systema combat is that we are using normal, everyday movements and actions where traditionally (evolutionary) humans are using aggression and tension. As we can see from our MN information this is supremely clever for many reasons:

·       Firstly we can confuse and slow down our adversary’s response as they are struggling to make sense of our attacks. Even experienced fighters will struggle, as their ingrained cues of defence are not activated properly.

·       Whilst our calm actions can induce confusion and fear in our opponents, they can also reduce a hurried attack as our calmness can be infectious (through their MNs) and slow down their rhythm and reduce their aggression.

·       These relaxed movements allow us to escalate in speed if necessary but also they enhance our MN perception of our attackers. We become one with them, which improves our ability to read them and anticipate their next move.

·       Another brilliant feature of Systema is the “leaving things behind.” By learning to touch or leave parts of our body on our opponents without threat (see MN information), we can take advantage of a given entry to counterattack. Very much like the Trojan horse.

We also know from our information on MNs that we learn by mirroring through two different ways; one is firstly via gross movements that are mostly outcome based. These will usually not look quiet right yet and will carry too much tension, however we have not formed our correct brain programs yet. Then the more skilled we become, the more we can take advantage of (and see) detail in what we are learning (see BCMN and SCMN). That is why a skilled practitioner will work with much more detail and foresight as well as less effort than a beginner.


As we understand now, MNs are truly multimodal, meaning they transmit information that is visual (actions, writing, films etc.), touch, smell and temperature (sensory), hearing (auditory) and more. It therefore makes sense to train by using all our senses rather than just vision (and thinking). This is also why Mikhail and Vladimir teach us to feel rather then think when training (analysing is for before and after training, feeling is for during training!).

In order not to overload our conscious nervous system it is also wise to be aware of our different senses and by being calm, to let the mind prioritise them. Pay attention during training how each sense can give you information of different ranges and of different qualities!! For instance, you may smell an adversary before you see him, you may sense his body heat giving you information, you may hear his elaborate breathing etc. Use it to your advantage by being relaxed, calm and maximising your MN input.

Also note that daydreaming or visualising can be a very good supplement to training as it can activate our MNs and help us train while we are “resting”.

Further, let’s not forget that when we make a mistake while training, the visual picture of that action remains so we have a chance to correct it. How elegant and beautiful is our nervous system?

We should now understand why we are taught in Systema to work with our opponents not against them! We already have all the information necessary running through our brain programs, we just need to decrease conscious interference and allow our training to be activated (trust).

We are actually fighting in our brains and that is where most confrontations are won or lost.

For a great example of this, watch Stealth Striking by Mikhail Ryabko:

Andrea Bisaz Dr. Andrea Bisaz was a Systema Instructor at Systema Australia, in Melbourne. He had been training and teaching Systema since 2005 and Dr. Bisaz also worked at the Melbourne Sports Clinic.
Andrea passed away in July 2014.