Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Reactions of Violence

By Matthew Schafer

Copyright 2008, All Rights Reserved

In the martial arts there are many myths, legends, exaggerations, and downright lies. Being considered somewhat of an expert in martial arts I get asked a lot of questions about the "death touch", knocking people out with chi from across the room, breaking a razor sharp spear with your throat, and many other things that people have seen in the movies or nowadays on youtube. One myth that never seems to be resolved is that of body reactions.

Years back I attended a two day seminar where a bunch of instructors each came and gave their own presentations. On the evening of the second day there was a Kenpo instructor who taught his seminar entitled "Playing Pool With Your Attacker". It was fairly well attended and quite interesting but nearly ended in a fistfight. The premise of this man's lecture was one I've heard many times before, that you could hit certain areas of the body and your attacker would always respond by moving in certain ways. The general idea is this: an attacker throws a punch so you block it and counter by punching him in the ribs; when punched in the ribs people always respond by turning and bending so when they do you have another strike waiting there for him which makes him do another predictable movement, and then that goes on and on until your attacker in neutralized, thus controlling your attacker like you would balls on a pool table.

The seminar went nearly as I had expected. This man talked about his principles and about half of the people in attendance rolled their eyes; he then gave demonstrations and some people made faces while a few other's left the room; he began explaining the science of this manner of combat and then someone shouted, "That's bullshit! People don't move like that when you hit him because..." A couple people in the audience raised their voice and the instructor calmly explained things again, then some people started to get angry because they lacked the necessary social skills and the seminar ended abruptly and everyone left.
This whole topic is yet another example of the fact that martial artists are over-trained and under-educated. Quick story to illustrate my point: years back I was asked to give a seminar on knife defenses at a local taekwondo school. I taught them a few basic movements and then had them work the knife attacks and defenses into their one-step sparring techniques and everyone was having a good time. At some point someone brought up one of my biggest martial art pet peeves...striking the back of the neck. I stopped everyone and asked them if they knew what happened when they struck someone in the back of the neck and a few hands went up. They gave answers like "cause pain", "make him light headed", and "knock him out". I replied, "NO! If you hit someone in the back of the neck chances are you'll either paralyze them for the rest of their life or you'll kill them". At that the room went silent. Why is it that people get excited about punching and kicking people but they freak out when you talk about the realities of those punches and kicks?

Go up to nearly any martial arts student, or instructor for that matter, and ask them about punching someone in the solar plexus and they'll talk about stances, turning your hip, rotating the fist, finding the target, breathing, and other colored belt level basics but cannot answer further. What follows is a summary of a conversation I've had with nearly a hundred martial artists:

Me: "What happens when you hit someone in the solar plexus?"
Them: "It knocks the wind out of them."

Me: "How does it do that?"
Them: "Uh...."

Me: "When you traumatize the solar plexus what process occurs in the body?"
Them: "Uh..."

Me: "Is the solar plexus an actual body part? I mean is there a solar plexus organ under there or something?"
Them: "Well....you're hitting the lungs aren't you?"

Me: "A lot of people consider hitting the solar plexus to be a safe strike but did you know that it can traumatize the abdominal aorta? Did you know that that can lead to cardiac arrest or an unsafe drop in blood pressure which can potentially be fatal, especially if they have heart problems?"
Them: "Really? What's the abdominal aorta?"

Me: "Did you have any idea that hitting someone in the solar plexus could possibly kill them?"
Them: "No, I had no idea. We're just told to hit someone there and knock the wind out of them."

Me: "You train to hit people in targets like the solar plexus, chin, groin, and neck so don't you think it would be a good idea if you understood exactly what these strikes do to the human body?"
Them: "That makes sense but we never go over that in class."

Me: "What do you go over?"
Them: "Right now we're going over forms and getting ready for our next testing."

It baffles me but martial artist are some of the most over-trained and under-educated people on the planet. They spend years perfecting their jump-spin-hook-kick but ask them what the difference is, in terms of injury, in hitting the high versus the low cervical vertebrae and they have no clue. All the stuff that doesn't really matter is the stuff that martial artists spend their lifetimes perfecting but all the stuff that is incredibly important, like understanding what does and what doesn't kill someone, is rarely given 10 minutes.

Today there are lots of martial artists in jail for killing someone by accident. The story that always comes to mind is one that was published in Black Belt Magazine in the 80's. The article about a Korean guy who was a black belt in Tang Soo Do and one day got in a fight and he defeated his attacker by chopping him in the back of the neck. At first the guy was happy and felt like a total "Barney-Bad-Ass" having knocked his attacker out so easily, however he felt quite different when he was arrested and later convicted of murder. His defense...he had no idea that striking someone in the back of the neck could kill him. Or what about the instance that happened in Texas in the late 70's, where a guy who happened to be a brown belt in Judo got mugged on his way home from work by a "drunk biker". The guy came at him and he blocked the guy's attack and then executed a hip throw which slammed his attacker on the ground and left him unconscious. He served seven years in jail for manslaughter. He had no idea that a hip throw could kill someone.

This is where the myths, legends, and reputation of the marital arts work against us. If someone attacks you and you hit them and they end up dying, good luck trying to explain to the jury that you had no idea that the technique you used was potentially fatal. The people on the jury panel have seen movies and watched "Walker: Texas Ranger" so when they hear that you train in martial arts they will think that you are an expert in destroying the human body. You can't look at a jury and say, "Yes, I'm a black belt in karate...but I did not intend to kill that man when I kicked him in the head. I had no idea that that could be fatal" and have the jury believe it.

Looking at a jury member and saying that you have been studying karate for 10 years and you have a 3rd degree black belt but you had no idea that hitting someone in the chin could cause a broken neck and leave the individual paralyzed or dead, is like a car mechanic saying that they've worked on cars for 10 years but had no idea that putting oil in your gas tank is bad for your car; in either case they'll look at you and say, "bullshit".

I'm not saying that you have to have a medical degree, but being a martial artist without a functional knowledge of anatomy and how trauma affects the body is like being a mechanic and not knowing how an engine works.

Back to reactions, the fact that people don't understand how the body moves in response to trauma is a perfect example of the over-trained and under-educated statement I just made. Let's examine the issue of bodily reactions and shed some light onto it; the idea that if you hit someone "here" they always move this way and if you hit someone "there" they always move that way is about 5% truth and 95% bullshit...in the general context that is. When you hit the body there are two processes that occur and manifest in visible bodily reactions, and they are a "mechanical reaction" and a "reflex reaction".

A mechanical reaction is incredibly simple to understand...it is just an object reacting to having a force applied to it. For example, if you give someone a little push you'll cause them to take a step back, and if you punch them then they should be knocked back further because you're delivering more energy in a more concentrated manner. A mechanical reaction is just one person moving in response to a force being applied to them.

The first important element in understanding a mechanical reaction is understanding that a human being is not a punching bag. If you push a punching bag it will just swing away from you because it has a very limited ability to move. Human beings can step forewords, backwards, and to the side as well as rotate 360 degrees in either direction; human beings can also rotate their bodies in both directions around their spine, curl and bend their backs, and bend at the hips. When you push a punching bag it will just swing away from you in one unit, but when you push a person backwards, or punch them, they will generally move in separate units; they will move away from you and if they can they will rotate, curl, and bend.

This leads to something known as "quartering the body". Since people rotate around their spines, if you push someone on the right side of their centerline they will move back and rotate to the right, and do the opposite if you push them on the left side of their centerline. Since people curl forwards and backwards at their lower back, if you push someone above their lower back (at their sternum) they will move backwards and bend backwards, and if you push someone right on their lower back (between their hips and sternum) they will move back and curl forewords. Since people bend at their hips, if you push them in the sternum or above it will cause then to move backwards and bend slightly backwards, and if you push them below their hips (their pelvis or legs) they will move back and bend forewords. As for anywhere above the shoulders you just move with the force in the direction of the force. These are just the simple mechanics of the body that you can validate for yourself all you want.

Since we've just gone over the above we can tell how people will move depending on where we push them. If I push someone in the solar plexus I know that they will move backwards (since I've applied force to them) and since I'm pushing them in their lower back I know that they will curl forwards. If I push someone on their right peck I know that they'll step backwards and rotate to the right. If I take my foot, place it on someone's left leg, and then push their leg back I know that their leg will go back, they'll rotate to the left (because their left leg is on the left side of their spine), and then they'll bend forwards since their leg is below their hips. If I push someone's head their body will just move in whatever direction I push them.

This isn't really complicated stuff, it's actually very simple: when you push someone you'll make them step back and they'll bend, curl, and rotate if they have the opportunity because that's just how the body is designed to move. It's easy to understand and 100% predictable; I know that if I push someone under the chin that they'll lean backwards and that if push someone in the stomach that they'll curl forwards...not complicated stuff.

The second important element of mechanical reactions is the simple fact that the harder you push someone the more energy you are applying and therefore the further they'll move. If you give someone a little push you might make them lean away from you or take a small step back, but if you take a big step into them and shove them as hard as you can you'll most likely make them stumble back 8-10 feet and then perhaps fall to the ground.

When explained mechanical reactions are pretty easy to understand but people still say, "Well, I've been fighting for years and I've never seen people move in a predictable way". Well...you'll notice that I've talked about pushing people and not about hitting people. When you push someone you shove them backwards with your body, you essentially push force through them. However, when most people punch someone they punch "to" them and not "through" them. If I'm standing 4 feet away from someone and then I swing my arm in and hit him in the solar plexus I'm applying very little force to him and I'm going to get a very small mechanical reaction from him; but if I step into him and use my bodyweight to drive my fist into his solar plexus I'm going to knock him back. Why? Because I'm hitting him harder.

Basically, if you hit someone lightly you'll get a small mechanical reaction (you'll only displace them a little bit) but if you hit someone forcefully and drive through them you’ll get a bigger mechanical reaction (you'll displace them a lot). If you want to get big predictable mechanical reactions out of people you can't be throwing a punch and pulling it back quickly, you have to step in, throw it hard, drive through them, and let them move away from your fist instead of the other way around.

Next you have reflex reactions. If you grab a hot pan you immediately pull your hand back, grab it with your other hand, and then look at it to assess the damage. This is an involuntary reaction that is a product of your autonomic nervous system that is designed to protect your body by making it move involuntarily away from trauma. If you step on a nail you don't say, "Oh crap, I just stepped on a nail. I better pull my foot up", you immediately jerk your foot up and then you realize that you stepped on something sharp.

The important thing to realize is that these reflexes happen involuntarily and without the brain. The signal goes from your foot, in this case, up your spinal cord to a sensor in your spine, to the rest of your body to get it to move, and then to your brain to let you know what happened. The only way that you can get around this reaction is if you know that something is coming and you mentally prepare yourself for it. If you know that a pan is hot you can grab it and hold onto it as long as you're able and if you know that a kick to the groin is coming you can take it, provided that it doesn't exceed your pain tolerance. In a real violent situation, however, you won't know what’s coming and when (which is why the "Iron Shirt" technique or other techniques designed to let you take a strike are fairly useless. If you know that something is coming and you have the ability to prepare yourself for the impact then why not take that time to...I don't know...block it or step in and crush the guy's throat?).

Another important thing is that while you are going through a reflex reaction you are helpless. So if I take my thumb and jam it into an attacker's eyeball he'll first give me a mechanical reaction and then a reflex reaction and he'll be helpless while he is doing so. Therefore, once I have caused an injury to him I'll have a few second window that is open to me where I can injure him again at will.

Reflex reactions are again fairly easy to understand. If part of your body receives a trauma that is sufficient in strength your body will execute an involuntary reaction that will jerk the injured area away, cover it with your hands, and then you'll look at it to assess the damage.

To wrap this up, if you hit or push someone you WILL get a mechanical reaction that is in relation to the amount of force that you put into them. If you stand 4 feet away and swing your arm in you probably won't get much of a reaction, but if you step into him as deeply as possible and drive your body through him you can potentially knock him out of his shoes. I've actually had a partner hold a pad for me and by stepping in and driving my punch through with my bodyweight I've actually picked him up off the ground. The harder you hit the bigger the mechanical reaction you'll cause your attacker to make.

Then, if you hit him and you sufficiently injure or break something you'll cause him to do a reflex reaction which creates a short window of time where they are 100% helpless. Put these things together then yes, you can make someone move in a 100% predictable way when you hit them, but to get it you have to drive through them and hit target, not just a general area of their body.

So the whole issue of being able to predict how someone will move when you hit them is valid, but people don't see the reactions in the "real world" because: 1.) They don't understand the difference between sport martial arts and "surviving a violent encounter" martial arts, 2.) They don't hit with enough power or they don't know how to hit with bodyweight, 3.) They do hit with enough power but they don't understand the difference between generating force and transferring that force into the target, and 4.) They hit general areas of their attacker's body instead of going after specific targets.

The way "reactions" are generally done in the martial art world they're about 95% bullshit, but when you understand what I've written here you should be able to predict the way people will move when you hit them. That being said...all this reaction stuff is overrated. If someone is trying to stab you to death with a knife then your goal isn't to predict this or to predict that, your goal is to severely injure the other guy so he is unable to continue his attack. Self-defense/martial arts/fighting is all about causing injures to your attacker which will cause his body to shut down and to be physically unable to continue his attack and anything else is of lesser importance.

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