Thursday, August 30, 2007

Instinctive, Conscious and Unconscious Fighting

A question I threw out elsewhere and I want to discuss it here. There are three (actually four) discrete ways that people respond to fights. Not all fights are the same and not all violence dynamics are the same and not all people are the same... etc. Violence is an infinite thing but sometimes you can categorize it- and sometimes the categories are even useful.

Martial artists train to develop skill. They train to be skilled fighters. They train to bring clean and efficient skills into a messy environment. Often it doesn't work. Sometimes it does.

In "Angry White Pyjamas" Robert Twigger writes of his year training in the intensive aikido course taught to the Tokyo riot police. Not going to comment on the book, read it yourself and make up your own mind about the book and the author. In one scene, however, he supplied a big clue. He happened to be training when the founder of this particular branch of aikido died. He was able to participate in a mourning 'pub crawl': the highest ranks of this system drinking their way from bar to bar. He got to watch them get into a mass bar fight.

These were some of the highest ranks in the world, extremely skilled practitioners of a system that has constant interaction with officers who test it hands-on. What Twigger saw was these masters rolling on the floor and swinging wild punches.

This is the way that people instinctively fight. This is why "control goes out the window" when a martial arts instructor ramps things up and pushes the students out of the comfort zone. This is why when martial artists go through simulation training they tend to flail and can't make things work. This is why some of my officers, with the best range training in the world, couldn't hit the broad side of a barn the first time they did a ConSim.

When instinct goes head-to-head with training, instinct will usually win unless you have a deep, down to your bones belief that your training is better than your instincts. That's hard, because instincts start bone deep. The two situations where I see training win out is when the training has been cultural as well as technical- in other words where the teacher was a veteran who could say what you will feel, what he had felt and why things worked or didn't. In essence, you borrow experience to create faith. The second is a student who has an almost cult-like faith. Blind faith can give courage and knowledge where healthy scepticism can give opinion and hesitation. It's an ugly truth, but fanatics tend to fight better than thinkers.

Conscious fighting can be good or very bad. Martial artists train for fighting -sort of- but they do it safely. There is no safe way to hurt someone. A handful of people are aware enough that training is not reality and disciplined enough to tell themselves, "This isn't a game, I'm going to have to do it differently" and then do it. It's rare and the balance lines are many and fine. Thinking too much is slow. You will never cognitively be able to analyze and make decisions in time to prevent a flurry of strikes- so how much of the process will be conscious requires balance. Where to focus requires balance, too, because the deadliest mind freezing questions "Who is doing this, why me..." etc. are also conscious.

Unconscious skilled fighting (instinctive fighting is unconscious and unskilled. The aikidoka Twigger mentions had skill but didn't use it, hence brawling) breaks down in two ways. One can be very good or very bad, the other is very good and very rare.

Skilled flinches can be very good or very bad. Someone swings and you act before your brain has caught up. It is blindingly fast, the cornerstone of ambush survival and the product of repetitive training in stimulus/response e.g. attack/counter. It can be really good if you trained a response that worked. Really bad if you trained one that didn't. My favorite example of this is Bryan who was surprised from behind and turned and fired three punches into the threat. The punches were so perfect that they made loud snaps against the threat's jacket and never touched his skin. Had there been a judge present there is no doubt that Bryan used winning technique.

This level of skilled flinches is limited. You simply can't flinch a complicated response. So it serves for the first few seconds of a fight and is critical in the first fraction of a second of an assault... but then you might be left either thinking, which is slow, or standing there getting hit or cut.

The rare good type also works on faith. I do not personally know anyone who got here from training alone. It took extensive experience. It is the ability to say, "My body knows what to do," and step aside and let it. It's not really your body, it's still your brain, but it is getting your conscious mind out of the way and trusting that everything will be okay.

It requires IME proven skill on two levels. If I know that I can handle likely situations, that my physical skills are up to the task I can let go without micro-managing myself. But that's only half. I also need to believe, absolutely that the decisions I make and what I do when the leash comes off will be decisions I can live with. I have to know that just as much as the fighting skills are internalized, part of who I am not just something I do, my ethical base is just as internalized. I need to know and trust that the subconscious decisions will be the same as the conscious ones would be if there was sufficient time.

This allows me to fight without thinking, or even to fight while thinking of something else, like paperwork or transport contingencies.


Mac said...

I have found that even a flinch reaction takes time and a certain level of unconscious awareness - the human nervous system, even the autonomic part, only works so fast. At 1 second range or closer, even vets get tagged. Focused perception and adrenalization can help here, shaving a half-second or so off the flinch reaction. But still, too close is too bad, now you're into the 'I can take it' or 'whew, lucky that strike was ill-aimed' range. The closer, the more luck, or toughness, you need.

Anonymous said...

This is a great post, as is the one on "I don't teach knife fighting." Truth is a hard pill to swallow for most martial artists. The operative word being artists. There are a lot of people learning self-defense who have spent many years and a lot of money learning how to fight without hurting anyone,AND, with the expectation of not being hurt. Its pretty scary. dave decker you vcan email me at

Anonymous said...

Great post.

When I was practicing WingChun, I had a Sempai who spent a lot of time internalizing the same questions as the ones you've asked.

I remember he was talking to the Sensei about buying a 'shock knife'. It's a rubber knife that gives a mild shock to the skin on contact, in a way that feels a lot like a real cut.

He knew that a lot of the people we trained with weren't in the right emotional state for the training to work in real life. So he made the suggestion for the very purpose of helping us train our instincts, and help bring out our unconscious fighting as much as possible during training.

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Anonymous said...

Hello. I once had a fight with a bunch of people where i was alone...while i was talking to one of them somebody else punched me in the face...I remember everything going pitch black and i couldn't see anything, however when i oppened my eyes i had the guy who punched me in a head lock and was punching his face...Though i don't remember how all that happened i somehow did that unconciously...Could somebody please give me a reasonable explanation of what exactly could be the reason for that?

Rory said...

I think the blur state isn't a perceptual distortion but a memory distortion. If you get scared/surprised to a pre-verbal part of your brain, your conscious mind doesn't insert recall tags to the memory. Best guess.