A deer with foliage hanging from his antlers

use your animal brain

or why do we practice basics?

“So we get better at them”

“Because they are the fundamentals of our martial art”

reasonably good answers from my students, I thought, but not the specific answer I wanted from them.   so, if those aren’t the answers I was looking for, then what was I after?

when facing adults struggling to learn patterns, I like to remind them that the act of navigating a roundabout correctly – holding down the clutch, changing gear, braking, turning the wheel, using the indicator and looking ahead and in the mirror all at roughly the same time – is enormously difficult.  I also point out that now they have been driving for years, it’s second nature and they can probably hold a conversation at the same time.   it’s safe to assume that most children don’t drive, and some adults don’t, either.  for these non-drivers then, I play a reverse trick to make my point. I asked my students…

who can do their own laces up? what about your belts? can you tie your laces and hold a conversation?

understandably, they were all reasonably pleased and confident in their answers.   excellent.

Line up!…who can perform pattern number one, whilst reciting their three times table? – much mirth, swagger and confidence all round –sijak!

one three is three, two threes are six, three threes are nine, four threes are nine, no wait, its inner block, reverse punch…doh!

all students stumble to a halt, epitomising the term chagrin beautifully.   I then go on to talk about the human brain, my received knowledge being that the human part of the brain, the bits we think with, our waking consciousness, are all found in the surface of the brain, like the shell of a walnut.   the bulk of the brain – the animal brain, the meat of the nut – is far more powerful.   its the part we use to walk, drink, breathe, all of the actions of which we are unconscious.   it’s also where our instinctive reflex actions live, actions such as holding our breath when submerged, and where our learned reflex actions lie – catching a ball, recovering from a stumble, and so on.   one of the many differences between us now and when we were babies is that we can pretty much walk without thinking about it.   we can drink from a glass of water, tie our shoelaces, brush our hair, use a knife and fork, and on the whole it’s pretty much effortless, because we do it every day, forever.   we have pushed those learned actions into our animal brain, and the human brain only interferes when it needs to.

this is why we repeat the basics, over and over and over.   I approach a young student and aim a reasonable speed punch at his head – he puts his hand up.  its not a classic olgol makki but everyone gets the point.   I throw a kick at him and he moves out of the way.   the training is working, arguably, these two simple defenses are inherent in the student, but still the point sinks home.   we do the basics thousands of times so that we push them into our animal brains, so when the time comes, we don’t need to think about them.   I can testify from my own experience…I have been training for some eight years now, and when I train with my betters, I can invent – no! – my animal brain has invented responses to one step sparring that I have never been shown.   this is great news, not only have reactions and responses been programmed into my animal walnut, but the underlying principles have been acquired and applied, with no intervention from Jase the human.

to be prepared for my next dan grade, its clear to me that I must improve my pickled walnut, and be able to recite my times tables, all the way from two up to eleven, for each of the eleven patterns in my repetoire, without making a mistake in either my mental arithmetic or pooomsae performance.  that’s when I will consider that I know the pattern reasonably well.

“Ambush” photograph courtesy of Tim King.   please contact me if you wish to buy any prints.

2 thoughts on “use your animal brain

  1. liamcgrange

    This is a great article. Especially when you talk of ‘the underlying principles’. Martial arts need to be principle based, not technique based. Responding with this or that techniques will never work in a fight, but if we train the principles, “techniques” manifest themselves naturally.


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