Science And The Martial Arts:
Looks Can Deceive
By Christopher Caile
In addition to the brain’s visual cortex (red
shading), a second area of the brain, the parietal cortex (dark
gray), has been found to play a critical role in human ability
concentrate and become aware of objects within the visual field.
This role is critical for it has been found that concentration
can so overload the parietal cortex that other important objects
can be missed. This finding has important implications for how
martial artists use their visual senses when involved in conflict.
In a fight or altercation, new research suggests that
if you become focused on any object, such as an attacker’s face
or on a punching fist, that you might just miss a secondary attack or
This same phenomena accounts for that fact that if you are talking on
a cell phone or listening to the radio in a car, you are more likely
to miss seeing a stop sign or a pedestrian crossing the street. Now we
know why this happens.
Scientists at UCL (University College London) discovered that we often
visually miss major changes in our surroundings because concentrating
hard on something can cause your processing capacity to reach its limits.
A team of scientists at UCL (University College London) has found that
the brain’s parietal cortex (that lies just above and behind the
right ear) is the area responsible for concentration, and is also critical
to our ability to detect changes. Their research was published in the
September 2005 issue of the journal “Cerebral Cortex”.
Using Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, or TMS (a research tool which
uses a powerful electromagnetic discharges to alter brain activity),
the team momentarily switched off the parietal cortex. The result was
that subjects failed to notice even major visual changes (the study used
changes of a persons face).
The experiment for the first time determined the crucial role of parietal
cortex activity in the ability to notice change. When it was switched
off, phenomena called “change blindness” occurred (failure
to notice large changes within a person’s visual field).
In previous experiments using fMRI brain scanning (functional magnetic
resonance imaging similar to MRI) (1), Professor Nilli Lavie and his
team of researchers at the UCL Department of Psychology discovered that
visual change detection was correlated with activity in conventional
visual areas of the brain as well as with activity in the parietal cortex.
In an article on this research in Neurology/Neuroscience News Professor
Lavie said this finding helps explain why people can be so easily deceived
by such things as a magicians' slight of hand: concentrating so hard
on something that a person’s processing capacity hits its limits,
the parietal cortex is not available to pay attention to new things. “If
you're concentrating on what the magician's left hand is doing, you won't
notice what the right hand is doing," Dr. Lavie said.
Thus, even dramatic changes can go unnoticed.
This phenomenon has important implications to martial arts. If we become
so focused on an attack or weapon, we might just miss another attack
or even another attacker.
This concept is not new, but it is now better explained. As a teacher
of karate, I have always instructed students not to focus on the attack
when facing an opponent (2), but to look beyond the attack so as to ascertain
the next move or attack. I knew that when visually focusing on one thing
that it takes time switch back the eye’s focus to a more general
awareness so as to pick up secondary attacks.
If you focus on something it takes time for the eyes to readjust and
for the brain to recalibrate on what you focus on again – this
involves the physical mechanisms of the eye, and mental activity within
the visual cortex (comprehending the new area of focus). This new research,
however, adds a whole new dimension – that one part of the brain
critical to noticing change can fill up and be momentarily blinded.
About the Author:
Christopher Caile is the Founder and Editor-In-Chief of FightingArts.com.
He has been a student of the martial arts for over 43 years. He first
started in judo. Then he added karate as a student of Phil Koeppel in
1959. Caile introduced karate to Finland in 1960 and then hitch-hiked
eastward. In Japan (1961) he studied under Mas Oyama and later in the
US became a Kyokushinkai Branch Chief. In 1976 he followed Kaicho Tadashi
Nakamura when he formed Seido karate and is now a 6th degree black belt
in that organization's honbu dojo. Other experience includes aikido,
diato-ryu aikijujutsu, kenjutsu, kobudo, Shinto Muso-ryu jodo, kobudo,
boxing and several Chinese fighting arts including Praying mantis, Pak
Mei (White Eyebrow) and shuai chiao. He is also a student of Zen. A long-term
student of one branch of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Qigong, he is
a personal disciple of the qi gong master and teacher of acupuncture
Dr. Zaiwen Shen (M.D., Ph.D.) and is Vice-President of the DS International
Chi Medicine Association. He holds an M.A. in International Relations
from American University in Washington D.C. and has traveled extensively
through South and Southeast Asia. He frequently returns to Japan and
Okinawa to continue his studies in the martial arts, their history and
tradition. In his professional life he has been a businessman, newspaper
journalist, inventor and entrepreneur.