Friday, November 18, 2011

Offensive, Defensive, Active and Reactive

Something that has been bugging me for some years and may have cracked it.
You can train not to telegraph, in fact that is critical if you want to have any success in anything involving combatives. But telegraphing is a common problem.

It's always puzzled me that attacks are telegraphed and defenses aren't, even when they are the exact same motion. See something coming at your eyes and you swat it away. The motion may look like a palm strike or a push block. No telegraph. Just a flinch. Decide to make the exact same motion as an attack to the ear or the jaw hinge and, boom. The telegraph is there.

That's bothered me for a while. Offenses are telegraphed, defenses aren't. Even when they are the exact same motion. I wondered if that could be harnessed, if the motions of attack could be instilled to follow whatever neural pathways made defenses so instantaneous and explosive.

There was some personal evidence. I used to have a paradigm for beginners learning to hit. They would start with the form and learn to hit. Then they would decide to hit harder and put more effort into it (and that never really works, the physics for a shot put are the physics of a push, not a strike.) Then most learn to 'throw' the strike, letting it go out loose and fast instead of forcing it to go out in a way that feels strong but is too tight.

And then, for some, the strike would just teleport. The fist would be out and then back at guard instantly, with no conscious thought. No telegraph, with that level. It just happened and usually it was sort of a surprise. It would be a good hit, and it would land before I even consciously saw the opening.

Talking this out with my daughter I realized I was dividing the techniques incorrectly. It wasn't that offenses are telegraphed and defenses aren't, it was that action is telegraphed and reaction is not.

You don't decide to avoid getting hit in the face. It's one of those things that would have really hampered species survival if it took too much thinking. It wouldn't be fast enough. And it's not just instinctive or basic things. Rookies in a war zone don't always hit the dirt when they hear incoming... but once the sound is associated with the result, it becomes an instantaneous, faster-than-conscious thought reaction. No telegraph. Once when I was about sixteen I heard the buzz of a rattlesnake much too close. When I looked down, the .38 revolver was in my hand. No memory, no thought and pure reaction (with very little training or practice in drawing, by the way, but that's another mystery.)

But choosing to draw a weapon, or punch or close or engage or do the dishes... all of those involve a thought process, and act of will, the conscious brain making the unconscious brain (you know, one subset of which is the one that fires particular neurons to nerves to particular muscles that the conscious mind can't even identify) make stuff happen. There are layers in it.

And it can be taught. Rather, it can be conditioned. The teleportation level of striking comes after lots of hard work in live training (and thus too many of the people who get this good have also ingrained pulling.) The brutal speed and effectiveness of the counter-assault/counter-ambush techniques are conditioned response. Clearly offensive in nature, but we teach them as reactive (flinch-based) and protective.

Just one of the mysteries, maybe solved. Maybe I should start a list of all the things I haven't figured out yet.


Jim said...

Once when I was about sixteen I heard the buzz of a rattlesnake much too close. When I looked down, the .38 revolver was in my hand. No memory, no thought and pure reaction (with very little training or practice in drawing, by the way, but that's another mystery.)

Fastest I've ever drawn was when I was being chased by a rabid woodchuck. No conscious thought -- but my gun was suddenly in my hand, almost like magic.

You've definitely got something with what I'm reading as "intention" versus "reaction." I've stopped people cold before they did something, because I could see them deciding to do it. Even if they didn't do anything immediately obvious -- that intention changed something.

Kind of like feeling someone watching you... It doesn't take long doing surveillance to realize that you have to watch the target without "watching" them -- because many will pick up on being watched, even if there's no way they could see you.

Chris Walker said...

Is this the issue your F5 drill was designed to address, i.e. the concepts of 'practice stillness' and 'just move' ...?

So action beats reaction - but we want to implement action with the same lack of preparation as reaction, in order to avoid telegraphing.

fornix said...

I think the only way to tap into the instinctive response is via long and correct training. Because there is a difference between instinctive response and conditioned response which may be so swift that it appears instinctive. But the neural pathways recruited in both cases are different. The instinctive responses are unconditioned such as a flinch in case of an electric shock which would recruit different neural pathways (mostly brainstem, spinal cord)than any learnt response which would entail pathways underlying not only motor action but also procedural memory, emotive conditioning, habit formation etc.. So in my opinion, the way to harness the instinctive reactions, would be to strengthen these neural pathways which can happen only after repeated use of the said synapses (a law called as Hebbian plasticity), which in general terms would translate into long, rigorous, correct training, in my view..

Anonymous said...

Years ago my Jujutsu instructor taught us to not telegraph a punch to the face by having us reach for a glass. Same distance, same motion as a vertical punch but nobody raised their shoulder, tensed their arm, gave an intense look at the target or pulled back their arm when reaching for the glass.
There are a lot of daily movements that we don't telegraph that are similar to martial ones.

Toby said...

What Fornix said...

Josh Kruschke said...

"... it was that action is telegraphed and reaction is not."
- Rory

Was it the action or the thinking about the action that was telegrahed?

I was hanging around my high school leanning aganst a wall, zoned out, while others where flicking pennies across and down the hallways at each other.
Things started to slow down, and I started to notice that I could track the pennies through the air.
I reached out and caught one.
It wasn't till a girl asked if I had just caught one of the pennies that I looked in my hand looked at her and said, "Yes, I guess I just did."


Anonymous said...

mushin, wu wei. Not the currency around these parts, but they describe the thing pretty well. In Wing Chun, we train for forward energy: the strike is the default, it is the thing we are always doing. Once the void presents itself, the strike slides in because the strike is there before the void appears.

Prolly sounds like BS. Maybe it is. But the ingrained forward energy that fills the void sounds a lot like the non-intention you're looking for. If the punch is always there, it can't be telegraphed; it's not a pro-active strike, it's a Reaction to a hole in defense.

I'd like to see a list of things you havn't figured out yet. I'd sure like to know what is tickling your brain.

Josh Kruschke said...

Anon 6:28 -

But what if a strike isn't whats called for? You might be missing a more obvious or optimal 'gift.'

Journeyman said...

Really interesting read.

I think that we can condition a instinctive, or near instinctive action/reaction.

The type and method of training or conditioning is key. And it can be challenging, as you eluded to, since to react as fast as is needed, it's no easy thing to not injure your training partner. Either that, or you train to pull your technique, or miss, which can have dire consequences in real combat.

Seems the conscious mind can slow us down. Lots of stuff to think about. Thanks.

cfadeftac said...

I knew a couple of guys whose reaction to anything that pissed them off was to punch, no thought just punch, luckily they grew out of it.

Recently I saw this reaction in my very upset 8 year old son, no thought, no hesitation, just hit. People whose only response is to hit will be very quick, since that is their only option, and some of these people are hardwired to hit so it just happens.

I am sure we can all tap into this in training but I do think that it would be something that is very difficult to control. As well since I have some training in non classical wing chun I can definitely see the problem Rory points out of pulling punches, even though we always make contact with our hits the power is all wrong.


Anonymous said...

These meditations on the subtleties of combat are always interesting and very valuable. I cited your "making it a gunfight" comments in a recent piece on concealed carry on my blog at

Jim Cornelius

Neil Bednar said...

The duration of time bewteen when the conscious thought arises to act (strike for example) and the time that the body begins to physically move to execute that action can be minimized quite a bit. As we know, when this time duration is long, the defender can see the "tell". The execution must immediately follow the intent to minimize tells. I hope you will enjoy this video as much as I do.

Mike H. said...

"Maybe I should start a list of all the things I haven't figured out yet."

Great idea! Rory's Problems. Like Hilbert's Problems.

Anonymous said...

Wow, Rory! Now you are on to something! If you write a book centered on this topic, I will definitely buy it. This is the opposite of "Monkey Dancing". It can be taught and conditioned or there would be no such thing as "Defensive Driving" classes.

Fornix, your post is interesting. I am not altogether convinced that different neural pathways have to be involved in the conditioned reponse. Perhaps the Triggers that cause the "flinch" can be changed out. How many different natural flinchs are there in a human? For example, "Backing up or away" is a natural response.

Hertao said...

The reaction with no telegraph isn't something you've decided to do, or something you "want" to do. It's something you NEED to do, NOW.

Have a partner stand within striking/grabbing distance, make yourself believe you NEED to hit him/her NOW, and you can do it.

The action, if it's a "preemptive attack" must be done without thought, from a place of necessity vs. thought and planning. Training methods and drills that require an empty mind will help to develop this, IMO.

For example, practice a prearranged sequence of attacks and counter attacks until you can do them at full speed and power, with a standard rhythm. Then both participants can stall their attack, so neither of you know exactly when the attack is coming, but it's going to come very fast, hard, and targeted. The only way this drill works is if you empty your mind...otherwise you get hit. And stalling your attack in this way helps with the non-telegraphic striking. It comes from the same place as needing to do it now.

Anonymous said...

Telegraphing comes from the rational brain, a decision process that includes all four parts of the OODA loop (observe-orient-decide-act); takes time. Reaction comes from the emotional brain, a 'late-to-the-party' response to an observation of a telegraph that demands an immediate response, cutting out the 'orient' part of the loop; takes less time. A flinch response is zone-oriented self-protection and as such is difficult to turn into non-telegraphed actions. A flinch compresses the body, locking it in place momentarily (or longer, depending on the amount of adrenalization) and only with a great number of reflex repetitions and context scenarios can a flinch be used as a non-telegraphed action 'aggressive' action; takes almost no time.

Anonymous said...

Anon 4 here: So we are considering a reflex that is not a "flinch". I was thinking of a horse's response to a swipe across its back quarters. The horse will kick backwards or run forwards.

Sometimes during my martial arts training I was taught to move into the threat instead of following my natural instincts to create distance. This is about when you cannot run away. Zone oriented attacks from all sides and levels would be necessary to train a reflexive response.

Simo said...

So, presuming there are two more or less separate hardwired neural pathways for conscious actions and reactions, the question is whether there are ways of training the reactions to be more effective and still keep using the faster pathways that bypass the more conscious parts of the brain? I guess there'd be more benefits in addition to not telegraphing things, quickness, effortless power generation, etc. The route of training some conscious action to be as fast as reactions, ie. conditioning, is possible, but damn hard. Is there a way of cheating the brain and do it easier?

Rory said...

That's the $64,000 dollar question, Simo. We've stumbled on it (my teleportation level; the F5 Drill is a piece of it; fornix' "Long and correct training"-- but that is vague, and if the training is correct does it need to be long?; MikeK's method removes the emotional weight of the action; JoshK's comment that it is the thinking that is telegraphed; Anon's making the strike the default; Everyone had good insights but I'm a little tired of typing.

But those are a lot of pieces. What do I need to make this a mindful process for teaching? To get (ideally) unscripted, effective, flexible (on all of the levels they need to be, e.g. strategic considerations like the presence of third party and physical effectiveness and respect for law) attacks to bypass what the reactive responses bypass.

A lot of us can do it, but it was something that grew out of years or decades in the blender. Can we teach it and get the process down to months or less? And make it a consistent effect, not something that just the 'talented' get?

fornix said...

Rory I am no expert on this, but in my opinion the training has to be both long and correct, because, the shift from a conscious neural pathway to an instinctive effortless one would need a change in rewiring in the brain. So to consolidate the memory of your training, the brain basically needs to undertake a process which is called as long term potentiation. That takes, weeks, months or sometimes even years. One necessity of the same is recall. The more a drill, move or any subject for that matter is recalled, the more stronger its hold in memory. Hence I said that the training needs to be long and correct because I believe it is harder to break or 'unlearn' prior learnt procedures.

Rory said...

Maybe, Fornix...except kids playing video games get to this level of unconscious competence in a few hours. If it takes us years (and moving your own body should be more intuitive than a gaming console) maybe long training itself is evidence the training isn't correct.


Simo said...

There are mechanisms in the brain that ensure people can learn from one incident, no repetitions needed. Typically those situations are really intense, and dangerous and they rearrange plenty of stuff in the brain - and there's no guarantees that what you learn is really effective. But the mechanisms are there. But coming up with ethical training methods that would utilize them is far more difficult. Rory wrote somewhere (can't find it now and don't remember the exact details) that the dracula's cape technique (or what's it called..) came as a natural reactive response to someone after it had been shown to him. No years of practice. So, I think some actions that are natural to the lizard brain can be taught more easily than the stuff that needs cortex and other higher brain functions.

Josh Kruschke said...

Rory -

I think you have touched on "it?"

What is it that children do that allows them to learn so fast?

The answer is 'play!' 

They go in with out any preconceived notions. They deal in the what is. They look at how it efects the big picture, and are results orientated. How did what I just do effect the whole. Did it work, not work? 
They look for answers, and think in questions. Who? How? Why? If?

The greatest weekness of adults, and those that learn a system is, they stop asking questions. They think they have the answer.  They become ridged. The mind becomes less fluid. 
If you know a system it's easy to predict the results or outcomes. 

Children learn the principles and phisics of their environment and are great predictors of out comes.

They look for the rules. 

You know the rules, i.e., what you can and can not do, you know what to do. 
It's not until we become adults that we worry, and second guess the posibilities of what our options are. That we learn to hesitate.

So, the answer to your question is to play; to just do.

But wait.... now I think I have the answer...

fornix said...

Rory, that is definitely an interesting question to think over. I believe that there could be few points to be considered here, definitely the kids brain is more plastic than an adults´. A human child is born with many more neurons than what we use in adulthood. What happens over the course of ageing is that we prune some of the synapses while strengthening others. So a child would definitely be able to grasp any novelty much faster than an adult.
whilst there are lot of controversy going on over gaming in the neuroscientific community, the consensus is that these games provide an instant feedback, reward or punishment while playing.. The moment we engage the reward pathway in the brain, it is easier to learn and reinforce what we learn because this pathway has major connections with the main memory regions.
Kids not only spend far too much time playing videogames on a daily basis than the time spent daily on training, but the mind- body coordination required in case of gaming, I believe is less than that required to throw a punch with the right trajectory and force to actually connect. So although it might not seem to be using a lot of effort, my hypotheis is that you are engaging more muscles while training than while gaming.
Last, while gaming, there is only mental fatigue that might happen.. but that will take time to kick in mostly because of the feeling of reward while playing a game. In contrast, there could be both physical and mental fatigue in case of training, which would be harder to overcome.. in my opinion.

I know this does not answer your initial question of how can you devise a short cut to reduce time of training without compromising on the efficiency. I am not too certain that it could be done.. because the efficacy of the training could be best tested under highly stressful conditions, I believe and then isn´t that really hard to replicate in a training session?

Randy said...

Rory, you might find some of the research findings on "expertise" (in an athletic performance sense) useful. Experts in any physical activity exhibit several common characteristics, regardless of the nature of the activity:

1. Superior ability to anticipate the likely outcome of a situation as it emerges. This is distinct from a conscious effort to guess what will happen, which we see in relative novices. Instead, this is more efficient perception-action linking. It manifests as shorter reaction time, with reaction time being the interval between stimulus and initiation of movement. RT is a reflection of the cognitive processing going on between perceptual and motor regions before a physical response is initiated. Combined with more efficient motor programs for the movement time, the result is a faster overall response time (RT and MT combined)

2. Less visual search for the important aspects of a developing situation. A relative novice looks everywhere, whereas the expert looks immediately at the salient areas (a shoulder movement before a punch, a slight drop of the forearm towards the belt line, etc.)

3. Consistent eye fixation on the important aspects of a situation once they have been identified. The relative novice continues to look at other elements even if he/she can recognize the important ones, whereas the expert will not change once the salient element

4. More efficient mental organization of knowledge about the activity. This is both conscious and procedural (unconscious) in nature. It is typically difficult for an expert to explain exactly the chain of events in how he/she responds to something with the efficiency that you mention, but it can be done; and equally difficult to accurately recall how they developed the skill. An excellent example of both can be found in the introduction to Dempsey’s “Championship Fighting: Explosive Punching and Aggressive Defense.” After realizing that he couldn’t teach his methods to younger boxers, he spent considerable time writing out notes on his developmental process as a fighter, noting that much of it was easy for him to perform but difficult to explain to someone else. The book was the result of his self-investigations.

5. For closed skills (those which the performer chooses when to initiate, in a stable, unchanging environment) fixation is required to develop expertise. Fixation is practice of the skill in unchanging parameters. For open skills (the performer has to time action to the outside environment and other people in it, both of which may be changing) developing expertise requires diversification, or exposure to as many potential performance scenarios as possible. The interesting bit here is twofold:

a)The conditions present when a performer develops a skill will continue to influence his or her attempts to perform it, even when the performance conditions are different. It’s crucial that early phases of skill development match the crucial elements of the performance environment(s).

b)Constant feedback and correction and repetition in a stable environment will lead to better performance in the learning environment, but not in the actual performance environment. Less feedback and more variety of performance contexts, alongside variability and the opportunity to make mistakes and solve them results in better recall and adaptation of a skill to unfamiliar or changing environments.

Considering that most violence/fighting scenarios tend to be highly open environments, the implications for training someone to develop expertise are pretty obvious and huge.

Randy said...

Part 2:

All of these points merge into what has been referred to as "game intelligence skills." For combatives and fighting arts, GI skills can be regarded as:

-Recognize constraints
-Identify priorities
-Predict outcomes
-Perceive affordances
-Adapt motor skills to situation

It should be emphasized that these skills are predominantly procedural and motor in nature, and as such are not necessarily consciously directed; they do not represent a “flow chart” of how one does or should attempt to think during training or actual fighting. They are a description of how expert-level performers tend to process and function in performance conditions. If you're interested I can send you some more developed notes on how the GI skills concept applies specifically to self protection skills development.

Here’s a related citation that might be useful for some ideas:

Gruber, H., Jansen, P., Marienhagen, J., & Altenmueller, E. (2010). Adaptations during the acquisition of expertise. Talent Development & Excellence, 2 (1), 3-15.