5 Books to Improve Mind-Body Performance

It’s the time of year when people think about how to be better, fitter, and smarter; so I thought I’d drop a list of books that I found helpful and thought-provoking.


If you’re interested in learning more about any of these books, the hyperlinks take you to my review in GoodReads, and from GoodReads you can get to Amazon page.


1.) THE RISE OF SUPERMAN by Steven Kotler: How do extreme athletes achieve Flow when one false move will kill them?



2.) FASTER, HIGHER, STRONGER by Mark McClusky: How do elite athletes squeeze the most out of the potential of the human body?



3.) BECOMING BATMAN by E. Paul Zehr: What would it take, physically and mentally, to become the Caped Crusader?



4.) FLOW by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: How does one achieve that state of relaxed and confident concentration in which we perform our best called Flow?



5.) Extreme Fear by Jeff Wise: How does one overcome anxiety and fear to perform one’s best?


6 Science Books That Martial Artists Should Read

When one has a passion for an activity,  it’s easy to get tunnel vision and miss out on the many avenues of information by which one might improve oneself.  I’ve done many posts on martial arts books, but I thought it might be useful to do one about books that aren’t about martial arts per se, but which have none-the-less contributed to my thinking as a martial artist.


1.) On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society by LTC Dave Grossman

OnKillingWhat it’s about? Psychologically, it’s a lot harder to kill another human being than one might think. Even when one is a combatant in a just war, the reluctance to kill–even one’s sworn enemy–is intense. Grossman examines the roots of this reluctance, what methods have been employed to get soldiers over it, and what the cost of doing so is.

The book also goes into a topic one might find surprising: video games. Not to give too much away, but military researchers discovered that getting infantrymen to kill required conditioning them to shoot targets that look human. This resulted in moving from bulls-eye targets to silhouettes, pictures of humans, and even Firearms Training Simulators (i.e. FATS, systems that run shoot / no-shoot scenarios on a screen, like an interactive movie.) It turns out that shoot-em-up video games may contribute to a child’s conditioning to be willing to shoot another human being.

Why it’s a good read for martial artists? Martial arts vary radically in realism and relevance to combative situations, but it’s easy for students of the martial arts–even martial arts that seem “hardcore” and self-defense oriented–to have unrealistic notions about the realities of combat. As François de La Rodefoucauld said, “One cannot answer for his courage when he has never been in danger.” By reading this book one might, perhaps, begin to rethink one’s assumptions, and change how one prepares to defend oneself and others.

Further reading on related topics:  I’ve heard good things about the works of Rory Miller–particularly Facing Violence and Meditations on Violence, but I haven’t gotten around to reading his books yet. If you have, please feel free to comment with your thoughts.


2.) The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance by Steven Kotler

RiseOfSupermanWhat it’s about? Kotler examines a state of mind that is widely call “flow,” and how extreme athletes are tapping into flow to achieve unprecedented advances in performance. There are a number of ways by which this state of mind can be defined, e.g. neurochemically (i.e. a neuro-cocktail of serotonin, anandamide, endorphins, dopamine, and norepinephrine), neuroanatomically (transient hypofrontality), neuroelectrically (high theta / low alpha wave–i.e. between meditation and resting wakefulness), or psychologically (intense concentration on a challenge that’s just beyond one’s present skill level.)

Kotler proposes that risk is an important trigger for entering a deep state of flow, and that this is why extreme athletes are proving so much better at achieving these states (and translating them into radically increased performance) than many other groups who seek to master flow.

Why it’s a good read for martial artists? It should be noted that not only is flow not a newly discovered state of mind, but it sounds a lot like the state of mind that martial artists have sought for centuries in the practice of their arts–often in conjunction with disciplines such as Zen or Vajrayana Buddhism. What is new, which makes this book worth reading, is an understanding of the science behind flow states. By moving beyond the hazy mix of truth and falsehood embodied in systems of spirituality, one may be able to find a way to more reliably increase one’s performance.

Further reading on related topics:  Flow in Sports: The Keys to Optimal Experiences and Performances is a book that is co-authored by the granddaddy of flow research Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.


3.) Becoming Batman: The Possibility of a Superhero by E. Paul Zehr


What it’s about? (Arguably, this is a martial arts book, but I’m including it because one wouldn’t get that from the title or blurb.) This book’s central question is whether a real life person could achieve the level of crime-fighting bad-assery that is the Batman, and–if so–what combination of genetics, training, and conditioning would be required. It also addresses what would be the cost in terms of wear and tear on one’s body and how long one could be expected to maintain said abilities. (Also, for the martial artists of feminine persuasion, how Batgirl or Catwoman might fair in combat against Batman.)

Why it’s a good read for martial artists?   There is tons of great information relevant to martial artists about the toll of extreme practice and regular fighting on one’s body (e.g. concussions, broken bones, etc.), what the limits of human performance are, by what means those limits are approached, and how realistic it is to have an unreciprocated policy prohibiting lethal weapons.

Further reading on related topics: Actually, if you know of any books on related topics, I’d love to hear about them. There are a number of such books, but they’re on textbook pricing (i.e. insanely expensive.)


4.) Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger by Jeff Wise


What it’s about? This book is about the mental and physical effects of mortal peril, and why some people’s performance excels under dire threats while other people just let themselves die while cowering in a fetal ball. The book asks what we can all learn from those people who manage to keep their heads about them when death seems certain.

In the interest of full-disclosure, as of this writing I’ve not completed this book. I just started it and am only in the second chapter. However, so far it’s been both informative and interesting.


Why it’s a good read for martial artists? Much like On Killing, I think this book may be valuable because there are many martial artists with daydream-induced misconceptions about how they will perform in dangerous situations. This book may help one evaluate one’s true state of preparedness, and discover how to go about making changes to improve one’s level of preparedness for a worst-case scenario.

Further reading on related topics:  If you want a scholar’s account, the book Anxious by Joseph E. Ledoux may be more your style. (Wise is a popular science writer.) I see that Ledoux is cited a lot in books I’ve been reading as of late, but I can’t say I’ve read any of his books yet. However,  I know he’s widely regarded as one of the foremost experts on fear. It looks like his book isn’t so much on mortal peril as Wise’s book, and covers all kinds of anxiety and fear.


5.) Faster, Higher, Stronger: How Sports Science is Creating a New Generation of Superathletes–and What We Can Learn from Them by Mark McClusky

FasterHigherStrongerWhat it’s about? The super-long subtitle says it all. It’s about how athletic performance is being improved by bringing scientific methods to the study of sports, and–as the second half of the freakish subtitle suggests–it explains how amateurs can put this information to good use. There are some methods used by elite athletes that aren’t at all suitable to the run-of-the-mill martial artists (e.g. don’t consume mass quantities of baking soda.) However, there are other approaches to nutrition and training that are readily translated to amateurs without much downside.

Why it’s a good read for martial artists? You may or may not think of yourself as an athlete. I can hear some martial artists saying, “I don’t practice a sport, I’m a martial artist. I deal in lethal combat, not games. yada, yada, yada…” Maybe so, but fitness, nutrition, and conditioning matter. If you want to be able to hold your own against more skilled opponents, you need to improve your capabilities and capacities. Fitness matters. If you think technical proficiency will get you through any situation, you haven’t run up against someone who is both technically skilled and highly fit–and when you come up against said person, your disillusionment will be swift.

Further reading on related topics:  As with the Becoming Batman book, most of the books on this subject are textbooks and are outrageously priced. If you know of other books in this vein, I’d love to hear about them.


6.) Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom by Rick Hanson et. al.

BuddhaBrainWhat it’s about? This book turns the lens of modern science on the serene, immovable state of mind that martial artists have historically sought out through Buddhist and yogic systems. It discusses how Buddhist practices help people to be more cognitively effective and less prone to emotional manipulation or disturbance.

Why it’s a good read for martial artists?  If one reads the works of warriors–ancient and modern, one will discover that the greatest warriors place a premium on the importance of the mind.

Consider the famous swordsman Miyamoto Musashi. Musashi was exceedingly successful in defeating his enemies by making them angry. He would show up late and behave disrespectfully, and he would make his own mind imperturbable. This allowed him to easily defeat warriors who were considered at least his equal in terms of technique.

Further reading on related topics: There are many books that look at similar questions.  Zen and the Brain is probably a better book in terms of the amount of information / insight provided, but it’s a much more daunting read. I wouldn’t put the latter in the category of “pop science” as much as just “science.”  (Zen and the Brain is also a much older book.)


These are my recommendations, I’d love to hear about yours in the comments section.




Most of my reading time this week was divided between two books, one of which was also a new purchase. The newly purchased book that I spent a lot of time with is E. Paul Zehr’s Becoming Batman. This book isn’t at all what one might expect from the title or the cover. If one were to notice that it’s put out by Johns Hopkins University Press, one might realize that it’s not a fanboy fantasy work. What it is is a book about the science of exercise and conditioning for athletes that uses “Batman” as a pedagogic tool to make more digestible scientific information like how our muscles grow or how we make our movement more efficient through practice. It’s a fascinating book if you are interested in science and martial arts (or movement arts more generally.)


Wired for StoryThe other book I’ve been tearing through is Wired for Story, which I wrote about last week. It’s a book that explains how human brains are wired to be intrigued by story, and how writers can put this information to good use.


Meeting the Dog Girls

The one book that I finished this week is Gay Terry’s Meeting the Dog Girls. This is a collection of short stories (some of which might be classified as flash fiction) that could be called tales of the weird or supernatural fiction. Most of the stories have a quirky sense of humor.



I bought two other books this week, both of which have been on my reading list for a while. The first is Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, by Robert Sapolsky.  As the title suggests, this book is about why humans are unique within the animal kingdom with respect to stress-induced illnesses. Stress reduction and mitigation have been an important question of inquiry for me as of late.



The other book is Haruki Murakami’s After Dark. This will be the third or fourth book by Murakami I’ve read, and I enjoy his style. Ironically, this was the first book by Murakami that I noticed in the bookstore, but I never got around to reading it.

BOOK REVIEW: Inventing Iron Man by E. Paul Zehr

Inventing Iron Man: The Possibility of a Human MachineInventing Iron Man: The Possibility of a Human Machine by E. Paul Zehr

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

As the title suggests, this book examines whether Iron Man could exist in the real world. As with Michio Kaku’s book Physics of the Impossible, answering the question involves defining the various meanings of “impossible.”

One way to parse the question is, “Is Iron Man possible today given the existing state of technology?” In and of itself, this question is of limited interest because the answer is, “no.” There’s certainly a demand, and so if Iron Man could exist given current technology, he probably would. That’s not to say it isn’t interesting to learn about what technologies are holding us back and where the cutting edge of relevant technologies lies—both of which are addressed by the book.

Still, a more interesting inquiry is, “Will Iron Man ever be reality given the physical laws that we know to govern the universe?” While more intriguing, it’s also a harder question to definitively answer. It’s impossible to foresee all the technological developments that might come along to answer the seemingly insurmountable challenges (e.g. Tony Stark’s inevitable Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).) The book deals with the critical question of what challenges would have to be overcome for Iron Man to be reality.

As Zehr suggests, the appeal of Iron Man is that he’s considered to be among superheroes for the common man. Like Batman, the sufficiently bright and diligent nerd may fantasize that, “That could be me.” You or I can’t be Superman or Wolverine, but given enough money, smarts, and training we could be Batman, or—even better—pilot the Iron Man suit. Put in this light, the book may seem like just another frivolous attempt to capitalize on the popularity of superheroes to sell books. However, there’s actually a great deal of food for thought packed in the book. Like others, I read the book because its title is Inventing Iron Man and not Neuro-motor control of a self-propelled armor system or some other suitably scholarly title.

Dr. Zehr has the bona fides to delve into this topic. He is a Professor who investigates questions of how the nervous system controls movement. That subject may not constitute the sum total of critical concerns, but it’s one of the most important challenges. For Iron Man to move the way he does in the movies and comic books, Tony Stark’s impulses to move have to be transmitted seamlessly to the servo-motors that move the suit. From dodging Col. Rhodes’ (i.e. War Machine’s) punches to ducking RPGs, Stark can’t be quick enough if he has to manually steer the device. Then, of course, there’s the issue of feedback. Any neophyte meditator who’s had his or her foot fall sound asleep will know how difficult it is to walk surefootedly when one can’t feel anything through one’s foot.

[Iron Man 3 spoiler commentary in this paragraph.] One of the most damning challenges for making Iron Man a reality is the high probability of severe concussions. Let’s say you make the suit out of a material that is virtually indestructible? This may be possible. However, the pilot’s mushy brain is still sloshing around inside that impenetrable armor. One can remotely pilot the suit in order to negate this (as has been done in the comic books and the third movie), but—at that point—is it still Iron Man? I know from a writer’s perspective it’s a lot harder to maintain tension if there’s nothing human on the line. In the third movie about 30 autonomously piloted suits get wiped out and the viewer doesn’t care—the only source of tension is that Tony Stark is without armor half the time.

Some of the most interesting discussions are about where the current state of the art lies with respect to: a.) direct mind control over mechanical systems; b.) a “flying suit”; and c.) robotic movement enhancers. Zehr conducts interviews with those engineers and technologists involved in such technologies, and finds out where we are presently. Letter “a” above seems to be the least developed of the three technologies, but they are all active lines of research.

I enjoyed this book and found it interesting. I think anyone who is interested in the state of technology and its limits will find it a nice pop-sci introduction to the subject. The use of superheroes as a pedagogic device may be overdone, but it continues to work because we are fascinated by the edge of possibility, and that’s what superheroes represent.

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