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.


Shame List: 25 books I should have read by now

To force myself to get cracking on more of the best books, I’m baring my shame. Below is a list of some of the books that it’s downright appalling I’ve failed to read as of yet. This is by no means a complete list. In fact, the initial list I compiled was about three times as long. (And it still wasn’t all-inclusive.)

I had to apply a few selection criteria to get to a reasonably-sized list. Some of these criteria are unique to a particular book, and will be noted under the book’s listing. However, there are also general criteria. If a book is commonly referred to in pop culture and I haven’t read it, that’s a cause for concern. In other words, if I’m not getting the literary references on The Simpsons, I’m a little embarrassed.  (Or pop science references made on Big Bang Theory.)

Also, I believe that one should read broadly and outside one’s comfort box. This means that one should read the counter arguments to what one believes, so as to not be happy stewing in one’s ignorance. This is part of becoming wiser and trading one’s narrow view of the world for one which is broader.

Some of these choices are idiosyncratic to myself– as opposed to being classics or masterpieces. For example, I was trained as a Social Scientist, so books on that subject might not make most people’s “essential reads” list. Also, I’m a martial artist, so my bonus picks are tied to that interest.

So, in alphabetical order, without further ado:

Brief history of time

1.) A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

This may be an odd choice as I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t understand anything Hawking says beyond the Acknowledgements page. I once read that this book had the distinction of being “the most unread book on everybody’s bookshelf.” (I don’t know whether that’s urban legend or established fact– but I can believe it.) An Engineering PhD student from a very prestigious technical university once admitted to me that he couldn’t make heads nor tails of it. I did read The Universe in a Nutshell, which has a lot of pictures and, thus, is more my speed; it was kind of “A Brief History of Time … for Dummies.”

Confederacy of Dunces

2.) A Confederacy of Dunces by James Kennedy Toole

The backstory behind this book is fascinating and has an important moral. Toole killed himself, presumably because he couldn’t get it published. Then, posthumously, it became a critically-acclaimed hit after his mother took it around and forced literary types to read it. NEVER GIVE UP!

Farewell to Arms

3.) A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

I’m a big Hemingway fan. I’ve read a few of his novels, many of his short stories, and even some of his non-fiction. This is my elusive great white Hemingwhale.

As I lay dying

4.) As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

I was a late comer to Faulkner. I’d always heard that his writing was wordy and that it straggled. As those are bad habits of my own, I figured I should feed myself more Hemingway-esque writing. However, after reading several of Faulkner’s stories and his novel Sanctuary, I developed a man-crush on his use of language.


5.) Beloved by Toni Morrison

Like many books on my list, I’ve got a copy of this on my bookshelf, and I even started it once. I’m not sure what distracted me. I picked it up originally to see how Morrison wrote accented dialogue. This is part of my advice to self to read outside my own history and experience.

cloud atlas

6.) Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

I like cross-genre books. Furthermore, I’ve heard good things about the organization of this as a series of incomplete stories that are tied together in the final part.

crime and punishment

7.) Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

This is another one that is on my bookshelf and that I started. It’s not that I didn’t like the opening (though like most all literature of its era is not exactly punchy.) Rather, it’s that I tend to end up with too many books up in the air at once. Therefore, if one takes over, the others get dropped.

I hope I don’t have a subconscious aversion to Russian literature, but–I must admit–I’ve read far too little Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Turgenev, and (to a lesser extent) Chekhov. (I’ve read quite a few Chekhov short stories.)

Don quixote

8.) Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

Again, I own this one. I don’t believe that I ever started it. However, anything with a sense of humor is a winner in my book.


9.) Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond

While doing my Masters in International Affairs, I almost took a course  that used this as a textbook, but I had a conflict with a required course. The question of how some civilizations progress (when others don’t) is fascinating to me–as is the subject of Diamond’s more recent book Collapse, which looks at why certain civilizations unravel.

Heart of Darkness

10.) Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

This one is particularly sad because: a.) I own it. b.) I’ve started it on more than one occasion. c.) It really does seem like a fascinating story, and d.) [the kicker] It’s extremely short. It’s not even properly called a novel, but more a novella or–maybe even–a long short story.

Les Miserables

11.) Les Misérables by Victor Hugo

I hate to admit that I might have some subtle anti-French bias because I’ve never read any Hugo or Camus.


12.) Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes

This is another one that is about balanced reading. I’ve always tended toward a libertarian view of governance. So I’ve read John Locke and many other arguments for why government should stay small and limited. Leviathan is the granddaddy of counter claims. It’s about why the government must be involved in everything. I’ve read a lot of commentary on the Hobbes-Locke divide, but not this book. While I may not agree with Hobbes, that’s exactly why I should have read him. I have read Marx and others who’ve made more modern arguments for the primacy of governing over the governed.

Life of Pi

13.) Life of Pi by Yan Martel

I read the cover blurb of this when it came out and thought it would be interesting. When the movie was coming out, I thought about it again, but I just haven’t gotten around to it.


14.) Lolita by Vladimir Nabakov

I saw the 1962 movie, but have never read this book. This is one that is often cited in pop culture. I know the general premise, but it would be good to read it.


15.) Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

I’ve read quotes from this book, and I once started it from the beginning. I agree with the life philosophy espoused in it, so I should have finished it by now. I particularly like the quote, “It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.”

lives of a cell

16.) The Lives of a Cell by Lewis Thomas

I began it once, and it’s tiny. So double shame on me for not finishing this one yet.

Origin of species

17.) The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin

I’ve read a lot of commentary on Darwin’s ideas, but not this book– at least not in full. I include it because it’s one of the seminal works on the biological world as we know it. It contains many ideas that should be considered when reflecting on the nature of man and animal alike.

Satanic Verses

18.) The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

Any writing that makes someone take a hit out on the author must be powerful stuff. Enough said.

The Stranger

19.) The Stranger by Albert Camus

This is one whose pop culture references, I suspect, elude me.

things they carried

20.) The Things They Carried  by Tim O’Brien

I’ve just heard that his is an outstanding and very readable book. It’s supposedly a great example of a sparse but evocative style. I’m interested in the literature of war, so it’s right up my alley.

Tipping point

21.) The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell

This is really a stand-in for a number of pop social science titles by Gladwell that examine the behavior and decision making of individuals and groups. Blink might have been a choice as well, but I’m a little more interested in the tipping point phenomena.  I’ve read vast troves on behavioral economics and related fields, but Gladwell is such a household name that I should probably be more familiar with his work.


The Trial

22.) The Trial by Franz Kafka

Another one that I own, I’ve started, which has many pop culture references, but which I’ve never gotten through.


wisdom of crowds

23.) The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki

This is sort of a counter claim social science book. I once read an old book entitled Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds by Charles MacKay. MacKay suggests (as Tommy Lee Jones did in Men in Black) that in groups otherwise intelligent people are stupid and panicky.

to kill a mockingbird

24.) To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Again, there are tons of pop culture references out there on this one. I’ve heard it’s a well-crafted book, but–for whatever reason– I’ve never read it.



25.) Ulysses by James Joyce

I have no illusions that this would be fun reading, but some consider it the best English language novel of all time. Also, I have read some of James Joyce’s shorter stuff, and I dig his use of language. My fear is that it will be like “the greatest American novel,” Moby Dick, which I did read and would rate far lower.

Bonus Shame Picks

I just realized that my list was appallingly Western-centric, and so I’ve added a couple bonus picks  to rectify this because I’m too lazy to go back and cut a couple of the others.

Tale of genji

26.) The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu

Written in the 11th century, this Japanese work is considered by many to be the world’s first novel–or at least the first modern novel.

Water Margin

27.) The Water Margin by Shi Nai’an

This 14th century Chinese novel is one of the four classics of ancient Chinese literature. It also supposedly contains a lot of kung fu flick elements.


Your turn. Come on,  confession is good for the soul. What books are you ashamed that you haven’t gotten around to reading yet?