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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 to visually 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 or conditions 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 another attacker altogether.

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.


(1) fMRI is a procedure similar to magnetic resonance imaging that uses radio and strong magnetic fields, but instead of imaging organs and tissue, it measures quick, tiny metabolic changes that take place in an active part of the brain.

(2) This is not to suggest that you never concentrate intentionally on an opponent. Before conflict begins or is initiated, if there is a single opponent, it can be helpful to look at an opponent’s eyes while still maintaining a general focus. I have found that in this way I can pick up slight, unconscious changes in the eyes just before an opponent initiates movement. This can help you respond faster since you can have a slight forewarning of an impending attack. Once conflict is initiated, however, only a non-focused general awareness should be maintained.

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About the Author:

Christopher Caile is the Founder and Editor-In-Chief of 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.

To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

Karate, concentration, concentration in the martial arts, perception, free fighting, eye focus, psychology of conflict

Read more articles by Christopher Caile

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