Martial Arts & Psycho Cybernetics (Part 2)

This post continues from Part 1, looking at how some elements of the book, Psycho Cybernetics by Maxwell Maltz applies to martial arts.

The author, Maxwell Maltz, makes the compelling case that our brains act as a goal driven mechanism that works on negative feedback to achieve our desires.  Now before people jump up in arms at the use of the phrase “negative feedback” when modern day political correctness and education tells that we should always be positive, bear with me while I explain.

If you’re driving a car down a completely straight road and you line the car up parallel with the road, sooner or later you’ll start getting nearer and nearer to the centre of the road or the curb, so you need to adjust the steering in order to keep going straight.  This heading for the curb is the “negative feedback” telling you to make an adjustment to keep you going on the correct route without having an accident.

It is like a baby learning to walk.  At first they keep falling down.  Then they manage a few step and learn from it.  The more they fall down (negative feedback) the more they learn to adjust their steps to prevent it happening again.  Negative feedback in this sense is essential to tell us when we are going off from our true path or goal.

However, once the driver adjust the steering he/she does it automatically and forgets about the slight variance of their car’s path; just as the baby forgets about the falls once it has learnt to walk.  So it is with all aspects of learning, including martial arts.  Once we become adept at a technique (walking, driving, jumping spinning kick) we forget how we did it wrong.  In fact the wrong way starts to feel un-natural to us.

Problems do set in however, (with any facet of life), when people start to focus on the negative feedback instead of the correction that it should indicate to them.  Ever heard somebody say, “Oh I’ll never be able to do that”.  They are focusing the negative feedback instead of using it to prompt them in the desired direction.  When we have a goal in life, we should pursue it aggressively.  I don’t mean knocking people out of your way to get there, but you should be very pro-active and determined in achieving your desired outcome.

This applies to every single aspect of your life, be it physical, spiritual, emotional, relationships, business, martial arts, whatever.

This is one of the strengths of traditional martial arts training, as it always teaches you to you strive for perfection of technique, gradual improving bit by bit taking you up in small bite size steps (grading syllabus).  For any able bodied person who trains hard and regular, getting the coverted black belt is achievable.  Many people who are not fully able bodied have achieved their black belt.

Now I know that many will say that the the belt does not really matter . . . and . . . well . . . they’re right.  That said, it is a very significant and tangible symbol of success and achievement.  Whether we train for combat, or sport, or just for the art; we train our minds to accept the negative feedback and to move forward.

In fairness, many endeavours can have a similar effect on the practitioner.  Martial arts however do deal with facing up to violence.  The fear of violence is one of our most hard-wired primal instincts.  To quote a wise friend of mine, Dave Hayward:

Acts of violence are the single most terrifying thing that can happen to us or those we love. The type of training we partake in gives us the confidence and ability to deal with it. I believe this is what makes the martial arts holistic as we learn to deal with and conquer fear by dealing with the worst fear of all.

Martial arts are geared up (as David says) to conquer our worst and most primal fear.  Furthermore, they are designed to overcome this most basic animal instinct within us in a methodical step by step manor (grades) which is designed to set us up for success.

Psycho Cybernetics also quotes from a published article by Prescott Lecky:

Lecky has said that the purpose of emotion is “re-inforcement”, or additional strength, rather that to serve as a sign of weakness.  He believed that there was only one basic emotion – “excitement” – and that excitement manifests itself as fear, anger, courage, etc., depending upon our own inner goals at the time – whether we are inwardly organized to conquer a problem, run away from it, or destroy it.  “The real problem is not to control emotion, but to control the choice of which tendency shall receive emotional reinforcement”.

This has an obvious relevance for us as martial artists.  Whether in a competition, or (god forbid) you are assaulted by a real street predator, you will feel that excitement.  It will usually be accompanied by adrenalin.  We must train ourselves to use that excitement to re-enforce our courage and our determination to get away safely (whether by running or fighting).  We mustn’t let this excitement overly re-enforce our feelings of fear and panic.

Maxwell Maltz relays an example of an old time boxer, Jack Dempsey, who apparently used to get so nervous before a fight that he couldn’t shave and couldn’t sit or stand still.  However, Jack Dempsey did not interpret this nervousness as fear; instead he used it to fuel his blows in the match.

This is what we as martial artists must also do.  Traditional martial arts do this by repeated exposure to somebody putting pressure on us at training, whether by free sparring or pre-arranged drills getting faster and more determined.  Reality based training does of course accelerate this process (as per part 1).

Martial Arts & Psycho Cybernetics: Train For A Crisis

On and off over the 6 months (when I actually get the time), I’ve been reading a fascinating book called Psycho-Cybernetics by Maxwell Maltz.  It’s a great book about how the brain works and how to use your own brain to get the best out of life.  I’ve also been struck several times on how much of it applies to martial arts.

One chapter, Crisis Into Creative Opportunity, is particularly applicable.  There are few crisis more immediate than that of being violently assaulted.

Here’s an extract from that chapter:

Although we may learn fast, we do not learn well under “crisis” conditions.  Throw a man who can’t swim into water over his head, and the crisis itself may give him the power to swim to safety.  He learns fast, and manages to swim somehow.  But he will never learn to become a championship swimmer.  The crude inept stroke that he used to rescue himself becomes “fixed” and it is difficult  for him to learn better ways of swimming.  Because of his ineptness he may perish in a real crises where he is required to swim a long distance.

This is where advocates of reality based martial arts should be sitting up and paying attention, as much of their training is more psychological than physical, to hard wire the brain to act under the most extreme circumstances.  The scenario based training where the aggressor shouts, threatens and swears at the defender are intended to induce an adrenalin rush, (to create the the feeling of a crisis).  It is known that under emotional pressure (adrenalin dump), blood goes away from the brain and it the muscles (ready for flight or fight).

However, with the lack of blood to the brain, the defender is not able to think as clearly as usual and will therefore tend to rely on remembered experience.  If the last experience of being attacked led the defender to cower and cringe, then that is what the defender will probably do again.

The scenario based training is designed to put the defender into an emotional/adrenalized state and hard wire (or “fix”) a different response, which the defender can fall back next time the blood is drained from their brain.

This type of training is akin to throwing somebody into water over their head to teach them to swim.  In light of the paragraph above from Psycho Cybernetics, what conclusions can we draw?

Well firstly, this type of training will get very fast results.  But just like the guy who is thrown into water over his head does not learn to swim well, they do not really learn very much in the way of self defence skills.  The main thing they learn is that when the crunch comes, they will fight back ferociously.  In many cases that will be enough, as many street predators are just looking for an easy target.  If they can see that their intended target is going to fight them ferociously (however badly), many street predators will move on and look for somebody else.

However, if you are picked on by an experienced street fighter and who just wants to fight no matter what, then this type of training is limited.  A street fighter is used to “training” in this emotional/adrenalized state.  So this type of scenario training just means that the defender will fight back without cowering or backing down.  It does not mean that they will in any way be a superior fighter, or have any other advantages.

This type of training therefore is ideal for somebody who just wants to do a short course and get good results and does not want spend years training at a martial art.

But what about the person who does want to become very good at martial arts; someone who does want to take self defence skills to a much higher level?

Maxwell Maltz says to be really good in a crisis, we should practice without pressure.  He also writes in Psycho Cybernetics:

Dr Tolman found that if rats were permitted to learn and practice under non-crisis conditions, they later performed well in a crisis.  For example, if rats were permitted to roam about at will and explore a maze when well fed and with plenty to drink, they did not appear to learn anything.  Later, however, if the same rats were placed in the maze while hungry, they showed they had learned a great deal, by quickly and efficiently going to the goal.  Hunger faced these trained rats with a crisis to which they reacted well.
Other rats which were forced to lean the maze under the crisis of hunger and thirst, did not do so well.  They were over-motivated and their brain maps became narrow.  The one “correct” route to the goal become fixated.  If this route were blocked the rats became frustrated and had great difficulty learning a new one.

Another example given was that of fire drills.  Those who practiced fire drills in a controlled manner were more likely to safely get out of a burning building, than those who had to find their way out under crisis conditions of that fire.

So as martial artist who want to react well under crisis conditions, we have to first learn in a non-pressure environment.  Once a technique or drill is learned, we can of course always up the pressure later.  In fact it would be foolish not to.  However, always training under high pressure hard wires and fixes responses in the brain which makes it difficult for the trainee to respond to should the circumstances suddenly change.

My Sensie, Paul Mitchell teaches over and over to practice movements slowly in order to perfect them.  As perfecting technique takes a very long time, whilst hard wiring a response under pressure gives very quick results, there is a clue to how you should train.  Most of it should be relaxed with a small (but regular) amount of pressure training.

It would seem no accident that most people who teach reality based self defence have a background in traditional martial arts, thereby covering both aspects.  Kevin O’Hagan who is a world renowned teacher of reality based self defence has said that traditional martial artists always pick it up fastest.

It also explains why Tai Chi is considered a higher level of martial art which martial artists should progress to (not start with).

Although Psycho Cybernetics is not a martial arts book, I would seriously recommend it to anybody who is interested in self development.  I’ve certainly found it eye opening.

 

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