Thursday, January 24, 2008

Intelligence, instinct, and efficiency

I have written in previous articles about the necessity of making use of reflex, instinct, and natural motion in self defense. The idea is that you have to be able to act effectively and decisively within the amount of time that the opponent needs to observe, orient, decide, and act (the OODA loop). The common approach to achieving this in martial arts is to build upon defensive instincts or low-level generalized habituated responses. But on the other hand, Chris Marshall recently noted the need for a higher-level of intelligence in conflicts and less animal instinct. With our recent interest in more creative, perhaps non-violent resolution of conflict, it seems like Chris’ call for a more highly evolved intelligence in combat may be a good thing.
This brings up the pragmatic question, how is it possible to develop greater intelligence in combat but still stay within the attacker’s OODA loop? What exactly do you have to do to get the faster intelligence that Chris says we need? Well, really we can’t. From my understanding of the neuromuscular machine I don’t really think that you can make the brain/spine/muscle machine work faster than it already does. There is hardwired into us about a ¾ second delay (if not more) in the OODA loop.
But we can make it SEEM like we are speeding up the higher brain functions by making ourselves a little more efficient in our motions and strategies.
Example: Assuming that you see the attacker coming when they are at least outside of touching distance (about 3 feet), if the attacker has to move 3 feet to hit you and you only have to move 18 inches to evade him, then you are effectively about twice as fast as him (plus or minus a negligible amount). A speed differential of 2X is huge! This effectively gives the defender a really large reserve capacity to do things to help the situation. What can you do with this spare capacity? Wait longer to act, move slower and more precisely, watch for more precise timing windows, etc… Think - use your best weapon – your mind! You can use this reserve potential to act on a level higher than instinct.
But – in order to achieve this reserve potential you have to diligently practice and you have to be ruthless in your self-evaluation of the efficiency of your own motion. Choose the things that happen most often during a conflict (e.g. footwork) and practice them relentlessly, looking for minute improvements in efficiency. Are there places in your footwork when you have to lean one way to move another way? Do you sometimes find that you have to shift a foot before you can move the direction you need to? Are you bending your knees (i.e. loading up some energy) so that you can jump out of the way fast? Do you take such large steps that your center falls and rises more than you can take up in the bend of your knees?
Little things like this eat up your spare reserve of potential for intelligent action, leaving you at the mercy of instinct or habituated response, which is better than nothing, but still not all that you can be.
Check out the following video of Gozo Shioda doing amazing things. Look how late he waits to move and what small motions he makes. This is what I'm talking about. Efficiency in motion leads to a great reserve that one can use to great effect.


  1. I dispute the claim that there is an inherent 3/4 second delay introduced by the OODA loop.

    If not martial arts, then professional sports prove otherwise. A decent game of ping-pong, for example, would be impossible with a 3/4 sec response time!

  2. Good counter-argument, Chris, but the good pingpong players are predicting. for instance, a player can hit it such that it limits the possible responses.

    Check out...

    it cites simple reaction times for visual cues and button pushing of between about 1/10 and 1/3 second. That represents about as fast a reaction that you'll get. everything else is more complex depending upon the uniqueness of the stimulus, the complexity of the decision, and the nature of the subsequent action.

    suppose you take one efficient, lunging step forward 2-3 feet and recover to a standing position. It takes about a second to do this.

    Now, if someone bumps you in the middle of that step and you lose balance and fall - that's evidence that your nervous system did not have time to observe, orient, decide, and act to stop the fall. that means that the reaction time to solve that particular problem is greater than half a second.

    If you were able to run that reaction in much less than half a second then it would be very hard (maybe impossible ) to ever offbalance someone during a step. They would react instantly to correct their posture.

    But I bet you could still beat be really bad in a game of pingpong ;-)

  3. Alas, the years have taken a toll, and my once formidable ping-pong skills are in decline.

    What you call a prediction of the eventual position of the ping-pong ball, can also be called a real-time response to the factors that will determine its position.

    The response time wiki is interesting, but I wonder: will taking averages of untrained and untalented (i.e. average) performers give us any insight into the highest human potential? I am more interested in looking at the very best performers, and discovering how we can do even better.

    Taiji and other Chinese martial arts emphasize the importance of "owning" one's nervous system, thereby recognizing supposed physical limitations as "mental problems" (for lack of a better term), and eventually correcting them.

    Such conceptions may not satisfy the particle fetish of the Western mind, but no matter; the proof is in the pudding.

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