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Thursday, 23 September 2010

I Have a Theory....

In class recently and on the Summer Camp I have referenced the idea of three brains, or Triune Brain Theory (TBT). Before we get into that, just a quick word on theories in general.
I've observed that a theory is like getting new a coat. You buy a new coat and you want to wear it around town, show it off, let everyone see your nice new coat. A year later you are walking the dog in it. Two years later you are doing the gardening in it.  So when we hear of a new theory we find ways to drop it into conversation, put it into training, it becomes a prism through which we view our activities. Over time the idea either fades or becomes so ingrained in our work we don't really notice it any more

Theories help us to understand intellectually how things work (for example the role of the amygdala in fear control). But it is even more important to have a physical understanding and then feed that into the survival response. A balance must be struck  between the emotional / logical/ instinctive - that way a good theory will soak into our practice and become a natural part of our work. 

OK, having got that out of the way, let's look at Triune Brain theory. It was developed by  leading neuroscientist Dr Paul Maclean in the 1960s.  According to TBT three distinct brains emerged successively in the course of evolution and now co-inhabit the human skull. These three parts of the brain have  numerous neuro pathways through which they influence one another. This interplay of memory and emotion, thought and action is the foundation of a person’s individuality. Dr Maclean detailed the three brains as follows:

Reptilian Brain
The oldest of the three,  comprising the brainstem and the cerebellum. It controls the body's vital functions such as heart rate, breathing, body temperature and balance. It is the repetitive, mechanical part of the brain, operating on instinct
There is nothing wrong with enthusiasm for something new - an enquiring mind is a healthy thing. But we should be aware of grabbing every new idea that comes along as the latest "big thing" then, in a few months time, gravitating to the next shiny idea.

Limbic System or Mammalian Brain
Emerged in the first mammals, comprising the hippocampus, the amygdala, and the hypothalamus. It records memories of behaviours and is the primary seat of emotion, attention, and affective (emotion-charged) memories.  The limbic brain is the seat of value judgments

First assumed importance in primates and culminated in the human brain with its two large cerebral hemispheres. MacLean refers to the cortex as "the mother of invention and father of abstract thought". In Man the neocortex takes up two thirds of the total brain mass. The cortex is divided into left and right hemispheres. The left half controls the right side of the body and the right side of the brain the left side of the body. Also, the right brain is more spatial, abstract, musical and artistic, the left  more linear, rational, and verbal. The neocortex is flexible and has almost infinite learning capabilities

That, in a nutshell is Triune Brain Theory. Using it we can broadly think of three areas of the brain - the instinctive, the emotional and the logical. There is communication beween the three, but at any one time one mind can "take over" and submerge the other two.

Now the Bad News
TBT gained widespread acceptance amongst psychologists, psychiatrists and various other students of human behaviour. Neuro-biologists, however, have been less enamoured of the theory and there are various debates and discussions for, against,  or somewhere in-between. Current theories still support the basic separation, however the models have come a long way since MacLean's time - an internet search will show the latest thoughts and research

For me the value of the theory is as a systemic way of thinking about the cause of behaviour. It may be a simplification of the mechanical processes going on in the brain (of which we still know so little), but  TBT is very usable as a "map" for our purposes

Training and Reality
TBT fits nicely onto how we train, how we react to things in everyday life and our actions in a threatening situation. If, for the moment, we stick with the simplification of logic, emotion and instinct:

When learning something we are engaging our logical facilities. We are finding out what fits where, how does this move,  what happens if I do that. The ideal conditions for this type of learning are to be comfortable, not rushed, low pressure. It's basic common sense and generally how we are taught any new skill, be it physical or mental

In everday life we tend to live in our emotional brain. We smile when we see friends, swear at the driver who overtakes us, think about what's for dinner, buy your wife some flowers (actually that's a survival tip...). In terms of training we become emotional when things aren't going our way (we get upset or give up), we want to show off,  or we step outside the drill in order to "win"
Our instinct level is running under the surface all the time and gives you the occasional nudge (feel hungry, need to pee, feel tired). Under real pressure it can override the other two - usually in the guise of fight or flight. In severe cases it triggers survival instinct which can  lead to people acheiving feats they would never normally consider possible. For example  the trapped climber who amputated his own arm to escape certain death - a perfect fusion of survival and logic.

In our training  each "mind" has a role to play,  but the two that we should focus on the most are the logical and the survival. The first for learning, the second for testing. When engaged in testing work we should neither be too focussed on the "hows and whys" nor should we be working with anger or pride, but just letting the work develop.  Just like touching the hot kettle  - no thought, no emotion, just pure instinct to protect

There has to be balance though.  I first became aware of TBT around 15 years ago during my researches into the Chinese  Internal styles of fighting. Teachers like Erle Montaigue tied TBT in with the shamanistic aspects of those styles. In other cases it was there but couched in traditional / cultural terms. There are several intense practices that teach you to quickly access the so-called  "killer" mindset. They mostly involve  people putting  themselves into  trance-like states in order activate the "reptilian"  predatory aspect of the brain (hence the preponderance of tigers, snakes, dragons etc in some martial arts ).  There are many risks attached to this type of training and you have to wonder if it is really suitable or desirable for modern everyday life. Even in modern battle, harking back to tales of Viking "berserkers" Dr Jonathan Shay wrote

"If a soldier survives the berserk state, it imparts emotional deadness and vulnerability to explosive rage to his psychology and permanent hyperarousal to his physiology — hallmarks of post-traumatic stress disorder in combat veterans. My clinical experience with Vietnam combat veterans prompts me to place the berserk state at the heart of their most severe psychological and psychophysiological injuries."    
Achilles in Vietnam

In order to maintain balance  the mammalian brain should still  be present in training -  in terms of compassion (not breaking our training partners), the social aspect (having a good laugh, being supportive of our colleagues) and in learning from each other - everyone is a teacher and a learner in class. Where it has no place is in terms of ego, pride and status, these are all counter-productive to training.

Training drills should be designed to stimulate one or more of the three minds. Something as simple as a slap in the face can be used to elicit an understanding of emotional response. Drills should be carefully organised to provide a comprehensive and progressive path from logical step-by-step gathering of knowledge through to adding in emotional and social/psychological factors through to various forms of  pressure testing to stimulate instinctive response.

 Activating the survival instinct is a challenging area of training, both for the instructor and those taking part. It is very easy for people under pressure to "stick" in the emotional mind - especially when you begin non-goal orientated sparring. It is important that the people taking part understand this. Of course an instructor is there to supervise the session but remember one of the key principles of Systema - know yourself.  Every drill is an opportunity to observe yourself in laboratory conditions and understand how you react to different stimuli. That self-knoweldge gives you the power to ensure your response is relevant and applicable to the situation. In short, you learn that you are responsible for your own behaviour.

Emotional Intelligence

There is another theory that states when we are put under  pressure we revert emotionally to a point at which we suffered extreme stress in the past. For most of us that is an incident in childhood. So people who get very emotional can return to a much younger level of emotional intelligence. You might expect a child of two to cry if he drops his ice cream. If a man of 35 did the same you would think something was wrong. Yet people behave in this way more than you might think - keep an eye out and you will see what a mean. Emotional intelligence is just another term for "know yourself". Once you become  self-aware you will become more aware of others and, as we covered in our recent body language workshop,  your communication skills will improve drastically.  For professional people this is extremely imnportant - there are a few Youtube clips showing examples of emotional brain taking over from the logical /professional  which of course leads to problems for all those involved

Don't think that "pressure" means a mugging or ninja attack. It can be as mundane as reading something on a forum - take a look around at the countless heated  arguments on every type of forum that degenerate into insult or "challenges".  If you can be that upset by somethng so inconsequential, what does that say for your self defence capabilities? Be aware of how your mindstate can be influenced. Advertising is the prime everday  example of stimulating an emotional response in order to sell (aspirational, status, conforming to the crowd, sad piano music, fancy terminology,  highlighting a fear, etc). Skilled people (or sometimes just annoying ones!) can do the same thing - be aware of it
This is a  simple view of a deep subject, but then again it doens't have to be overly complicated for our purposes. Just be aware in training which "brain" you are in. Over a period of time that awareness will extend out to rest of your activities, in the same way that the physical aspects also do. In a short space of time you will become much more aware and tolerant of the people around you - and more tolerance can only be a good thing.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Leicester Camp 2010

Last weekend saw the first weekend camp organised by the Leicester Systema group. For me it was a nice change - in the past I've organised camps myself  whereas this time I was guesting, which meant I was also able to observe the drills and participants a lot of the time.  I'll run through the format of the camp first then offer some thoughts and observations

Friday afternoon saw everyone arriving and pitching camp. We had use of a farm on the outskirts of Leicester, far enough out of town to be rural but close enough to be accesible. Most the of the participants were local, but some came from as far afield as Kent, Herts and Notts. First job was to get tents pitched (these ranged from a simple tarp against a fence to large efforts complete with double bed and shower!)
Then fire pits were dug and wood gathered. While everyone enojyed a brew (why does it always taste better from a camp fire?) Rory and Ed took everyone through the plan for the weekend and orientation of the site. The main theme for the training was to be psychological work. Participants were told they would be put through various types of pressure over the camp and the ground rules were laid out to ensure productive and safe training for all

It was just starting top get dark so we began the first session. As the emphasis was on the psyche after a warm-up I took the group through the basics of using the breath to help control fear and tension. I then explained how the brain operates under stress and  how we can move between three states - the logical, the emotional and the survival. The role of each in training and in real life was explored through some further drills before taking the group into some deep striking methods in order to prepare them for the work ahead.

Time for another brew and a quick bite to eat and we were off for the first major exercise. This was to be in an urban setting, so it was a quick drive into town. The group was split into two teams and the role and aims of each explained. One group was basic operating as surveillance on the other, each with specific tasks to accomplish. The exercise took place in and around a large park and adjacent industrial area, which led to some interesting interactions! Myself, Ed and  acted as observers and it was interesting to see the two groups at work sometimes unaware of the other (and us!). On conclusion of the exercise a few hours later it was back to camp for a nightcap and beans before bed

Saturday morning - glorious weather and after breakfast and a warm-up it was time for my next session. This time I took the group through body structure, in particular the use of the straight line and circle / sphere in hand-to-hand work.  Also, keeping with the psychological theme I emphasised once again the "three brain" theory and how it relates to practice and real-life application

Following lunch break the group was divided into four teams for the next exercise. Three of the groups were to work on the "firing range"  - with air rifle, bows, etc - while the other group were takne up to the deserted farmhouse for the main exercise. This took the form of an intense psychological test - I won't reveal any more details as some of you may wish to try it in the future and in any event the test is about the experience rather than reading about it. Each of the groups was rotated up to the old farm in turn and also got the chance to experience the exercise from different angles

By now it was late afternoon so while the food was prepared the group was prepped for the night exercises ahead. This involved another short drive to a different site and a cross country trek to an old abandoned railway line deep in the woods. Ed took the group through a PT session, making full use of the surroundings, and then teams were again formed for the next set of drills. These again were mostly psychological-based, though with a healthy dose of physical interaction! Again I won't go into full detail for the benefit of those who wish to try them in the future. We finished up after mindnight, then it was back to camp to feast on the chicken, lamb and beef that had been roasting in the embers!

Sunday morning - time to clear the site and also, as a favour to the farm owners who so kindly allowed us use of their land, to help with some ragweed clearing and general tidying-up. Following this the group was driven to a local sports centre for the last session and a post-camp "de-brief".  Each of the participants was also presented with a certificate and so the weekend ended!

It was interesting for me this time to be more "in the shadows" this time rather than teaching and organising all the sessions. First off I was extremely impressed with how the camp was run and structured. Ed and Rory had obviously put a huge amount of work into creating  the various drills together and were ably assisted by their team - including Ash, Gaz, the two army lads Chris and Mike, Michelle and Leanne the farm owner. This meant participants were given some unique experiences outside of the normal realm of what we can practice in class.

In most cases the drills were unknown to me too and were in turn funny, exciting and interesting to watch. The different strategies employed by the participants, their inventiveness in dealing with or creating situations and their determination to keep on going (particularly Tracy) were inspiring to watch and a tribute to their training. The one unplanned incident in itself revealed the participants at their best - how people can pull together as a team, help someone out and then carry on with things as normal. That was very interesting for me as all of a sudden it wasn't training any more, it was real life - and everyone shone.

I hope to get some footage up on Youtube in the next day or so, though as most of the exercises were at night there is not a lot of footage to choose from! Some people also asked for more info on the "brain work" we were discussing, so I will get some relevant links posted up too

Overall - an outstanding camp. As everything went well I'm sure we will have use of the site in future which gives us scope for so many different types of training in the future - so watch this space. Thanks again to Rory and Ed and to everyone who took part, it was a great experience all round!

Thursday, 2 September 2010


Now on release - shot at our recent workshop, how to read body language, including observation skills, eye access cues, spotting "tells" and how to spot a liar! Plus pre-emptive work for when communication breaks down!


When you’ve been training in martial arts for a long time it’s easy to forget what it is that makes people first start training. It’s also easy to take certain things as read or that certain things seem perhaps obvious, either in terms of undertstanding or of avoiding like the plague
I’ve not carried out a survey but would hazard a guesS that one of the top reasons for people starting to train is how to handle yourself - whether in the “street” or the sporting sense. It may be they have had a bad experience in the past or live in fear of something bad happening. The Martial Arts would seem to offer all the answers - but do they in fact offer a false sense of security?

The answer is undoubtedly yes - at least in the case of the numerous “experts” selling fast-track systems of "ultimate" street defence, or offering black-belts within a year if you sign the contract. Anyone looking at one of these websites with highlighted words and a carefully structured sales pitche would do well to imagine they were buying a car instead. Would you go to a forecourt that promised you a Porsche for the price of a Robin Reliant and could teach you to be an expert driver in one easy lesson? Apply the same logic to the E-bay ad that promises to you the secrets of the fighting arts in one cheap DVD and you won’t go far wrong.

However the problem can go beyond the obvious shifty sales-types and into any style or school. There are three types of false security that we need to guard against

So we can run 12 miles in four minutes, do 500 press-ups, take a punch from King Kong and look great in a tight T-shirt. It’s good for marketing and  good for the ego. Of course being functionally fit is good for our training and general health - when kept in balance. The danger is when it becomes an end in itself and you become tougher-than-tough. Nothing or no-one can touch you, out run you, be stronger than you. It’s an illusion that can soon be shattered by an out-of-shape brawler with a severe attitude and a beer bottle. Or a group of teenagers who don’t give a toss. On a couple of occasions I’ve seen big men taken down after getting themselves in situations they could and should have backed away from - one was left with a severe injury, a result of scaring the guy he was picking on so much he was driven to desparate measures.
CURE - work outside your comfort zone. Take on new things that you have to learn from scratch. In training simulate injury or work from a vulnerable position. Don't assume you will be on tip-top form when attacked, you may be sick, tired, drunk - or all three!

“What do I do if…” I’m sure we’ve all heard the question or even asked it. The good instructor will explore the possibilities. The less good instructor will give a technique. “You do A, B and C, it’s an ancient technique that never fails”. Or “ you do A, B, C these are commando techniques that never fail”
Simple answers to a complicated question. Of course answers can be simple but should never be simplistic.  In some schools techniques can be linked together in elaborate sets and kata. They feel good to do, they give you a sense of movement, power and control. But we should always be aware that they are just what they are - a choreographed routine that, at their best, teach us body mechanics and possiblities, at worse are a codified set of stylised responses to stylised attacks. There is a dnager of trying to fit your secure technique into each and every situation. Or of adopting a strategy that is fine for your training method but inappropiate for a real situation
CURE - do some freestyle work. Don't have a set attack/ defend response. Work in a group of people, or try blindfold work, each will cut down on "thinking" time and force you to respond naturally. If your techniques aren't coming through, examine the training - is it the techniques or is it you? Either way, make the neccessary changes

Every style is the best. I’ve yet to hear a school say “those guys down the road are better than us”. It might be that the style can trace its roots to ancient warrior monks who fought all-comers, or undefeated samurai who prevailed against the odds. It may be that the founders are special forces operatives, professional, dangerous men. Or they could be world champions in their particular style. Nothing wrong with any of those, if they are true. You can take security in the fact you a re learning from experienced people - but that is all. Because they are not you! Unless you hire them as a 24-7 bodyguard it’s highly unlikely they will be there if you need them either - it’s down to you.
So don’t be too quick to boast about who or what your teacher is or can do. Leave that sort of talk for the playground - or for the sort of internet forums that have “who’s the hardest instructor” polls or “would X beat Y in a fight” threads. Some people phone me and ask "does it work"  - the answer is "no, "it" doesn't work - you do". It's not an answer that the marketeers would approve of, but if people don't realise that basic fact it's unlikely they will get very much from training with me

CURE - train around! If any teacher tells you you can't train anywhere else - leave them. No-one has all the answers. Be open to different attitudes and approaches, try out different styles and instructors.

How can we guard against becoming too secure in our training? It seems and odd thing to new-comers - they come to training to be made to feel secure. Stripping away their securities would seem to be counter-productive. In fact the reverse is true - when done the correct way. Becoming aware of our weaknesses and insecurities is the first step to adressing them. We all have limitations and weakness - we have to learn how to overcome them or to work around them. The Systema method of having no fixed syllabus as such is very helpful in this respect. No-one knows what to expect at class. Things might change at any moment. Rather than being shoe-horned into the requisites of the style, students learn to adapt to the situations presented, discovering strengths and weaknesses along the way. Likewise the training can be instantly adapted to the needs of the student. Some drills specifically put you into very vulnerable situations and invite you to explore your response and learn and grow from the experience
For the instructor it’s doubly challenging - not only do you have to provide the appropriate levels of challenge for your students, you have to ensure that you aren’t just teaching from your own comfort zone as well. This may mean recognising that you have a weakness in some areas and either working on those, or in calling in other instructors who can cover those areas for you. A pyramidal or hierarchical structure is anathema to this approach. Getting in and mixing it with the students will blow any notions of instructor infallibility out of the water too! If you don't mix it up with your students, ask yourself why
Security is good -we nened it in many aspects of our life, emotional, physical, belief. But security founded on the rock of experience, honesty and understanding and is much stronger than that founded on the shifting sand of ego, falsehood and hype.