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?

RiseOfSuperman

 

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

FasterHigherStronger

 

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

Becomingbatman

 

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

flow

 

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

ExtremeFear

BOOK REVIEW: Extreme Fear by Jeff Wise

Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in DangerExtreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger by Jeff Wise
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

Extreme Fear examines the science behind fear—particularly the fear of life and death situations. In doing so, the author presents findings from scientific research as well as cases that demonstrate the concepts behind those findings. People are often so close to their fears that they take them for granted, and feel that there’s nothing to be done about them. However, there’s a great deal to be learned about how fear operates and how one can improve one’s performance in fearful situations. By replacing the lens of shame with one of science, one can see what fear is objectively, and make the emotion more of a help and less of a hindrance.

A central idea in the book is that fear evolved to maximize one’s chance of survival against the age-old threats facing mankind. These pre-historic threats were relatively straightforward: saber-tooth tiger attacks, clubbing by members of warring tribes, fire, famine, flood, etc. Ancient threats often called for hauling ass, freezing in place, or getting stabby. The problem is that our present-day threats often call less for gross motor skills (run, kick, or throw) and more for creative or nuanced solutions to technological problems (i.e. sliding cars, falling planes, or malfunctioning assault rifles.)

Motor learning is one means by which this mismatch between what our brain tells our body to do in a stressful situation and what is called for in our modern world. Take the case of the infantryman with the jammed rifle. Without training, he might pick up the rifle like a club, intending to use it to unleash blunt force trauma. That is, if he’s still alive then the enemy gets into cudgeling range. Alternatively, the soldier may drop the rifle and run for his life. However, because he had a drill sergeant who made him practice clearing his weapon over and over, his body can go to that behavior while his conscious mind is blinking out.

Still, motor learning only takes us so far. Sometimes creativity is called for, and that’s a tall order in the face of where our body / brain want to put limited resources. In fact, Wise begins the book with the story of a pilot who was flying an old plane when the wing support broke and the wing flipped up, threatening to rip off. Somehow the pilot figured out—based on a vague memory and lots of experience—that he could flip the plane over and fly it upside-down and the wing would snap back into place. Then he had to figure out how to land: a.) upside-down crash, or b.) try to flip the plane over at the last second. The brain systems that this pilot smoothly accessed are among those that one doesn’t expect to be operating in life or death situations—e.g. those involved with long-term conscious memory and abstract problem solving.

The question of how some people can keep their wits about them, as the above pilot did, while others crash and die is the one that Wise really wants to answer. It turns out that it’s not such and easy question. During World War II, the military conducted studies to try to determine which soldiers could be counted on under life and death stress. The answer didn’t readily present itself. Among the problems in finding an answer is that courage and fearfulness aren’t as unitary or straightforward characteristics as one might think. Wise presents the case of Audie Murphy as a prime example. Murphy was at once one of the most decorated American soldiers in World War II—a man who’d taken on a company of Germans single-handedly—and a man of great social anxiety.

The book’s 13 chapters are divided into three parts. The first part presents fear and its effects. The middle section deals with various forms, aspects, and facets of fear, including: social v. life-and-death fear, choking behavior in sports, and fear of fear v. fear of an outcome. In the last part of the book, Wise suggests how one might achieve better performance in the face of fear.

I found this book to be informative and interesting. Wise did a good job of picking cases to illustrate the concepts discussed in the scientific literature. I’d recommend this book for individuals who are interested in the science of the brain and the ways to achieve ultimate human performance.

View all my reviews

The Jujutsu Murders, Plus Some Brain Science

Jujutsu

Imagine you’re a detective in Edo Period Japan (1603-1868), and you’re told to investigate a case in which three highly-trained practitioners of one of the most well-respected jujutsu schools have been stabbed to death. Each of the three bodies has only one mark on it–the lethal stab wound. The wound is on the right side of the abdomen in all three cases. There are no signs of a prolonged struggle, despite the fact that each of the three had many years of training and none of the men was an easy victim. The stabbings happened independently, and there were no witnesses to any of the killings. So, who or what killed these three experts in jujutsu?

 

Nobody knows who killed them, but a rigid approach to training contributed to what killed them. As you may have guessed, the killer took advantage of knowledge of the school’s techniques, i.e. their “go-to” defense / counter-attack for a given attack. It’s believed that the attacker held his scabbard overhead in his right hand, and his weapon point forward in a subdued manner in his left. All three of the defenders must have instinctively responded to the feigned downward attack as the killer stabbed upward from below with the unseen blade.

 

It’s a true story. I read this account first in Jeffrey Mann’s When Buddhists Attack. That book offers insight into the question of what drew some of the world’s deadliest warriors (specifically, Japan’s samurai) to one of the world’s most pacifistic religions (i.e. Buddhism–specifically Zen Buddhism.)  Mann cites Trevor Leggett’s Zen and the Ways as the source of the story, and Leggett’s account is slightly more detailed.

 

This story intrigues because it turns the usual cautionary tale on its head. Normally, the moral of the story would be: “drill, drill, drill…”

 

Allow me to drop some brain science. First, there’s no time for the conscious mind to react to a surprise attack. The conscious mind may later believe it was instrumental, but that’s because it put together what happened after the fact and was ignorant of the subconscious actors involved. (If you’re interested in the science of the conscious mind’s stealing credit ex post facto [like a thieving co-worker], I refer you to David Eagleman’s Incognito.)  Second, our evolutionary hardwired response to surprise is extremely swift, but lacks the sophistication to deal with something as challenging as a premeditated attack by a scheming human. Our “fight or flight” mechanism (more properly, the “freeze, flight, fight, or fright” mechanism) can be outsmarted because it was designed to help us survive encounters with predatory animals who were themselves operating at an instinctual level. (If you’re interested in the science of how our fearful reactions sometimes lead us astray when we have to deal with more complex modern-day threats, I refer you to Jeff Wise’s Extreme Fear. Incidentally, if you’re like, “Dude, I don’t have time to read all these books about science and the martial arts, I just need one book on science as it pertains to martial arts,” I just so happen to be writing said book… but you’ll have to wait for it.)

 

So where do the two points of the preceding paragraph leave one?  They leave one with the traditional advice to train responses to a range of attacks into one’s body through intense repetition. Drill defenses and attacks over and over again until the action is habitual. This is what most martial artists spend most of their training effort doing. A martial art gives one a set of pre-established attacks or defenses, and it facilitates drilling them into one’s nervous system.

 

Of course, the astute reader will point out that the three jujutsu practitioners who were killed had done just what was suggested in the preceding paragraph, and not only didn’t it help them but–arguably–it got them killed. I should first point out that the story of the three murder victims shouldn’t be taken as a warning against drilling the fundamentals. As far as their training went, it served them well.  However, there’s a benefit to going beyond the kata approach to martial arts. One would like to be able to achieve a state of mind that once would have been called Zen mind, but–in keeping with our theme of modern science–we’ll call transient hypo-frontality, or just “the flow.” This state of mind is associated with heightened creativity at the speed of instinct. (If you’re interested in the science of how extreme athletes have used the flow to make great breakthroughs in their sports, I’d highly recommend Steven Kotler’s The Rise of Superman.) Practicing kata won’t help you in this domain, but I believe randori (free-form or sparring practice) can–if the approach is right.

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

Becomingbatman

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

ExtremeFear

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.