Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Muga-Mushin, Part 1: Sucker Punchers, Defensive Flinches, SPEAR, Dutch Muay Thai, British Doormen


Practitioners of Asian martial arts and meditative practices have often described an idealized performance state in which the epiphenomena of "self" is lifted and the martial artist is able to function without conscious regulation. Training in the physical mechanics has been embedded so deeply that the techniques flow as if by pure instinct, and an egoless, transcendent mental state has been cultivated so thoroughly that an uncluttered mind can essentially "get out of the way" and allow the training to run without interruption.

This is a worthwhile goal, to be sure. Today's post and the ones that follow will discuss some impediments to a free, ferocious expression of martial arts and other fighting skills during an actual physical confrontation, and offer a few measures that may be taken to try to mitigate the problems. The context here is the individual who encounters serious real-world violence and wishes to dominate himself, his opponent, and his overall strategic environment.

In terms of structure, I have tried to organize the posts by starting with the most basic and primitive issue and then concluding with problems related to strategic uncertainty. The themes will be:

1. Defensive flinch reactions that can interfere with trained responses.

2. Management of panic, anxiety, and other self-destructive emotions during an immediate crisis.

3. Training programs to "install" motor skills at a level that they are accessible on demand as established neural subroutines (freeing up limited, conscious working memory capacity resources).

4. The introduction of the COS model, a basic analytical framework for making strategic and tactical decisions under conditions that think-tanks refer to as "VUCA": Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity. The COS model has potential application in problems on the battlefield, in the financial markets, and in the realm of social relationships.

Hopefully this will be an entertaining series...

I will for the time being assume that it is taken as a given that training that is unrealistic in the single most important dimension of conflict---an active enemy who wants to win, just like you do---runs the risk of immediate, catastrophic shocks if and when such resistance is eventually encountered.

At the other extreme, people who did attempt to train with 100% resistance at all times would find that technical development was difficult. The urgency of the moment would probably preclude experiment or play with new ideas and tools (in other words, desperation would cause students to stick with what they already knew, and development would be stunted). A complete training program will have provisions for both the embryonic learning stage, trial-and-error incremental learning, and the realism and pressure of a live, competitive situation.

To keep things simple today, I'm not going to add variables such as the presence of weapons or recovery from immediate injury in order to try to fight back. These are very important elements that can present new challenges and decision problems, but the scenario of the moment is a comparatively simple one in which an individual decides to try to ambush another with a surprise punch before the would-be victim realizes that hostile intent is present. We'll start with a straightforward base case and the extrapolate from it to deal with more complicated and dangerous situations later on.

Defensive Wounds and Startle Reflex

One potential obstacle to the mushin goal would be a situation in which training was simply not accessible because a more primitive movement had essentially overridden the learned one. A subject of some controversy within the tactical training community has been the existence of a hardwired "startle flinch" reaction to surprise. The flinch reaction, which usually happens at great speed, becomes an interesting field of study when the researcher is looking at small-but-potentially-influential pockets of time within an emergency situation.

From a fighting perspective, the concern is that a physiological flinch reaction to sudden unpleasantness(say, a sucker punch thrown in a bar fight) may dominate any other response, including years of martial arts training, causing a trained individual with years of experience to behave as if he was untrained. It would be necessary to recover from this initial startle-flinch position (although recovering psychologically is probably much more important, as we will see) before trained techniques can be accessed.

Blueprint for a Startle Flinch Response

The origins of a protective flinch reaction are somewhat controversial, as it is not fully understood whether or not this is a truly instinctive reaction that is hardwired into the human nervous system or a learned response that follows from the experience of collisions and physical pain early in child development. An example of a truly reflexive flinch reaction would be the "Moro" that newborn babies display:

The Moro reflex appears to be an instinctive response of an infant to being dropped; the arms spread and close and the infant typically cries out. One can readily imagine the evolutionary basis for this behavior.

There is some evidence that an equally primitive reaction is present to deal with loud noises and impending collisions with other objects. Experiments conducted with laboratory rats found a "startle" reflex that attempted to protect the neck (by hunching the shoulders) and the eyes (by blinking and turning the head away). Note that most mammals are quadrupeds and are not well-equipped to attempt to shield their heads with their paws.

There is now a stylized, prototypical example of the human startle-flinch protective reaction that many use as a template. Specifics will of course vary, but the general depiction of this flinch is a sharp, sudden compound movement that raises the subject's hands to form a shield or buffer between the threat and the subject's head. At the same time the stomach tightens, the shoulders hunch upwards, and the knees bend into a quarter or half-squatting position. The head usually turns away from the threat and the eyes are often closed, and this all happens at extreme speeds and with an absence of executive planning or coordination by the frontal areas of the brain.

The idea here is that a human being who suddenly encounters danger in his or her environment may, depending on intensity and proximity, first launch into a flinch reaction, and then may recover to a trained response a bit later (assuming a trained response is possible because the person has in fact been properly trained). This line of reasoning usually continues to state that the reaction exists on a deep enough level that de-training the startle-flinch would be for all practical purposes impossible; instead, the logic suggests that we should go with the flow, piggybacking trained responses on top of the flinch and using it as a sort of fighting platform from which we can employ more deliberate techniques.

The Protective Relay-Race

There are three networks within the human brain itself that help to provide further detail when considering what goes on within a protective flinch situation. The networks map fairly closely to the triune model of the brain---reptilian, mammalian, primate---that is often proposed to show how relatively newer parts of the brain are built on top of---but do not replace---older parts that saw evolutionary success. Together, the three networks manage questions of "approach" and "withdrawal" that are the basis for much of sentient life.

First we have the alerting network, which manages "intrinsic alertness" and clearly relies heavily on visual and auditory cues. The alerting network must receive a "danger" snapshot, a piece of information indicating an immediate threat.

Next, the orienting system, which is rooted in emotions and could be thought of as a more advanced approach-withdrawal system, would normally receive the baton from the orienting system and attach an emotional significance---a "salience"---to the package (the cingulate gyrus and amygdala use dopamine markers to emotionally charge events, and this plays a significant role in how some things are remembered. More on this later when we talk about emotional capacities and survival). Think of the orienting system as the cylinders of a revolver, with each cylinder containing a different circuit of Panksepp's emotional command system. The trick with this revolver is that the cylinders spin to match the appropriate system to the information (a more elaborate and abstract take on the revolver model would be to use Kenrick's theory of multiple, modular selves and to insert a different self-module into each chamber).

Finally, the executive network would get a chance to add a strategic, more explicit decision-making overlay to the experience. In physical emergencies, this network tends to play a greater role in designing the preparation and training program than it does when the problem actually presents itself and has to be dealt with.

What we have during this initial, "oh f*%$!" moment of shock and defense is a break between the alerting network and the orienting system. In some ways, the alerting network has failed to do its job and provide ample warning to the orienting system; instead of a smooth transition or hand-off of the baton during a neural relay race, the alerting network has suddenly screamed that a problem exists. The reflexive cover is activated as a failsafe. More mechanically, the type of covering reaction appears to be linked to visual reaction time---the lag between the sudden appearance of a visual stimulus and the ability to take physical action to deal with it appropriately (catching a ball, swinging a baseball bat, slipping a punch, etc.).

Frequently the protective flinch is mistakenly considered part of an evolved and emotional fight-or-flight reaction within the orienting system, but that's really a secondary issue relating to the psychological impact of the threat as it is more fully recognized, marked as urgent, and a pre-conscious strategy starts to form. Because all of these things happen so quickly and below the level of our conscious awareness, they may be experienced as a single package.

The initial consideration that creates the sense of urgency and alarm---demanding a protective flinch---may be based on a measure called "tau" (size of the image of the stimulus on the retina divided by the rate of change of the image). Tau gives a sense of speed. The eyes cannot continuously track small, fast-moving objects at these incoming angles: studies of baseball players successfully swinging at bat confirm that batters see the initial stage of the pitch and then are functionally swinging blind at the time of connection between the bat and the ball. They must base their swings on the first 50-70% of the ball's flight; after that, the ball has become "invisible" in the sense of the human eye's ability to continuously track it at that speed and angle. The brain makes a "predictive saccade" (a visual jump in the mind's eye, used to complete the information gained in the first jump or two) to trigger a physical response, and a big piece of hand-eye coordination is this immediately linking of the visual cue to the correct physical response.

Think of the foveal cone---the most information-dense piece of our visual field---as being correlated with our selective attention, or the components of our environment that we are actively devoting resources to caring about. If an object comes at us from within the foveal cone, we may be prepared to deal with it because, at least theoretically, we have been paying attention to it (whether or not there is training to actually reinforce this selective attention is another story and we will get to this very soon).

If something comes at us from outside of the foveal cone---the baseball coming in from the periphery, the big haymaker punch thrown by the ambusher, whatever---then the opportunity for a prepackaged response is almost certainly going to be less developed, as by definition we were not paying attention to this emerging threat.

Readers may recall from the previous post that evolutionary psychology Doug Kenrick has put forth a fascinating thesis regarding the existence of multiple "selves"---personalities with attention goals and priorities---in the human brain.


The mind is modular, and we all use different cognitive software when we are confronting different problems. There is not one single executive decision-maker inside your head, but a number of different subselves. When you’re in a threatening situation, your inner night watchman takes over; when someone attractive bats their eyelashes, your swinging single takes the helm; when you’re in a dirty public restroom in the back of a bad restaurant, your compulsive takes over your mind, and when you’re around your children, your inner parent steps up. Each of those subselves uses different decision-rules, values different things, and feels good or bad about different things.

An issue in social situations that offer an emotionally complex, information-rich landscape is that there are many potential decision cues to be attending to at any one time. Priorities will be established depending on which of Kenrick's revolving gallery of CEOs is functionally in charge, and that will depend on a complicated interaction between the information coming in from the environment and one's own psychological disposition when one entered the environment. Thus, being "alert" to the threat of a sucker punch or baseball may depend on a host of other uncontrolled variables, including the proximity of attractive mating opportunities, desires to make friends, the presence of children, and so on. As I stated before, I think a synthesis of the Kenrick and Panksepp material, if possible, would represent a truly significant advance in the fields of both evolutionary psychology and cognitive science.

However, our situation begins with an event that has not yet been given emotional significance. The existence of an incoming, fast flying object at a collision-freaked corner of the visual field, under surprise conditions, seems to be quite important here: this initial flinch is a defensive, protective reaction to the truly unexpected. A professional athlete like a major league ball player does not have a panic reaction to an incoming ball, but a member of the crowd who is removed from the concentration of actually playing the game may react with a startle display if a ball suddenly veers off in his direction. Both are dealing with the tau/visual reaction time issue, but one is surprised and one is not. "Surprise" in this case has a training and preparation content; there is a difference between an athlete's behavior in an unpredictable game that he is trained for and the same athlete's behavior in an unpredictable game that he has not trained for.

Now let's change our hapless victim candidate and say that the member of the crowd has his back turned when the baseball arrives. There will be no startle flinch display because the ball never entered his visual field, and thus never triggered it.

By the same token, being surprised by a loudly barking pit bull who suddenly appears 25 yards away, chained to his owner's Harley, meets the "surprise/startle" condition but not the "incoming flying object" condition. The flinch reaction in this case will actually be a tendency to suddenly freeze (more on the freeze reaction and the related cascades next time).

Tony Blauer and the SPEAR System

The man most responsible for raising awareness of startle-flinch reaction in a tactical context is probably the Canadian instructor
Tony Blauer. This clip gives a flavor of Blauer's argument:

So there are two different issues at work here: 1) the hypothesis that an unavoidable startle-flinch reaction occurs when we are surprised; 2) the hypothesis that if a flinch does occur, we will do better (during a violent emergency) to have trained to execute techniques directly from said flinch rather than to recover to a more traditional fighting stance or platform first.

This can be a polarizing debate, and some would probably enjoy it if I became pedantic here and tried to criticize Blauer's work on the grounds of the jargon used or a technical detail, but I think that would do all of us a disservice. It is easy to issue complaints against a practitioner, working in the field, for failure to use the vernacular of the lyceum, but doing so often serves to increase the distance between theory and applied practice. In addition to several other contributions, Blauer has done the tactical training community a service by bringing the startle-flinch problem to its attention. The jargon and acronyms may be unavoidable, both for practical marketing purposes and because even packaging the concept for discussion probably has to involve the creation of a precise, descriptive vocabulary.

At any rate, Blauer has developed a hand-to-hand combat training system ("SPEAR", or "Spontaneous Protection Enabling Accelerated Response") based around this notion of using the startle flinch body position as a loading mechanism or springboard for an initial, battering-ram type counterattack against the ambusher. His logic, at least as I understand it, is that: 1) the flinch, rooted in an evolved reflex, will happen spontaneously; and 2) the fastest next step would be to launch a technique right off of the flinch (rather than, say, recovering from the flinch to adopt a more formal martial arts stance, and then launching the technique from that stance). Those adopting the SPEAR system are adding a third condition: 3) the best tool to use from the flinch is a sort of extended wedge frame position with the arms that normally attempts to drive the nearside forearm into the side of the opponent's neck.

(a couple of views of the stylized SPEAR master-counterattack that Blauer proposes as an initial movement from the defensive flinch. The brachial stun via the forearm strike to the neck would be used to try to turn the tide of the fight and put the sucker puncher on the defensive)

I think that Blauer would argue that, in a surprise encounter on the street or in a bar fight, the pre-conscious defensive flinch would arrive first, his proprietary approach to springboarding off of the flinch (the SPEAR---a kind of diving wedge) would come next, and then the techniques of a preferred fighting system would come last. In other words, SPEAR would be Blauer's way of bridging between the completely untrained (the flinch) and the trained response (martial arts).

In terms of using the startle flinch display as a platform for other tools and techniques, there is a real lack of evidence for or against any particular ideas. We just don't see the SPEAR type of counter being successfully used enough in street fights or mixed-martial art competitions to know how to value it.

Although the general absence of a SPEAR-type counter in combat sports (there are some techniques that could qualify as being in the same family, if not the same genus or species, but they typically have a different purpose---perhaps being used as a physical frame to maintain space for a Muay Thai knee strike to the abdomen, for example) is not completely damning, I find it troubling: it is worth noting that a SPEAR-type double-arms drive to the side of the neck is fully within the rules of MMA competition if someone did want to try it. On the other hand, we have a great deal of evidence about what tends to work in real (uncontrolled) or realistic (synthetic, done in the mixed-martial arts laboratory) unarmed fights, and we would logically want to go from an untrained protective flinch reaction to a skilled, high-percentage counter as quickly as possible.

Note also that the flinch reaction as stylized by Tony Blauer is far better suited to a fully committed, looping, haymaker style punch or overhand right than it is to a trained fighter's rapier-like straight jab or cross directly to the face. In addition, a skilled sucker puncher who throws a quick feint may cause a flinch reaction that he can then exploit with a shot from the other side (indeed, we will see that checking for reactions is something many fighters will do). An argument could be made that the sucker punch of a street or bar fight is categorically different than a tight striking combination made by a trained combat athlete, and thus we would should not hold SPEAR to an unrealistic standard.

I do not believe these problems are particularly troublesome for Blauer, because his study plays the percentages well: the majority of streetfights are highly emotive affairs and do tend to involve wild, aggressive headhunting with looping, angry, uncontrolled shots. The disciplined, professional streetfighter equipped with years of structured Muay Thai training and a systematic approach to violence is, thankfully, still a rare animal outside of Marvel Comics.

If we do want to increase our search radius and include the potential for highly trained streetfighters, we may find that going from a startle protective reaction to a mixed-martial arts-based solution does not actually pose much of a conversion issue: the protective flinch posture that we adopt "automatically" can be quite similar to a standard high guard cover used in boxing (albeit less refined), and so there may be less of an attendant need to try to install a "bridging" technique between flinch and training.

Paul Howe, a noted firearms and tactics instructor with a background that includes service as a member of the U.S. Army's elite special mission unit (SMU), looks for technical consistency in different training and operational milieus.


Select a system that will go from dry fire, to range fire, to Sims (Simunition rounds used to shoot each other safely in Force-on-Force training), to live-fire CQB, to combat or a tactical encounter on the street with little or no changes to the system.

Perhaps hand-to-hand combat deserves its equivalent statement:

Select a system that will go from shadow boxing, to pad work, to sparring, to an MMA match, to combat or a streetfight with little or no changes to the system.

Perhaps the combat athlete could eliminate the middle man and look to go from flinch to accessing, say, boxing or Muay Thai fundamentals with little delay in between. After all, at least we know that boxing and MT work against skilled opponents; we cannot say with confidence that some of the alternatives work well under the same circumstances. My own preference would be to look at the most reliable trained responses and to work backwards from there until we hit the untrained startle-flinch, with the goal of converting the flinch directly to a mixed-martial arts counter.

This is a very formal guard; there are variations in boxing and Muay Thai that are even closer to the protective flinch hand-and-arm display.

To be fair, perhaps there is something else going on here and Blauer's SPEAR system exists in a quasi-instinctive shadow realm between a purely untrained response and a completely trained one. This argument would depend on evidence that it is faster (and equally effective) to go from a flinch to a SPEAR-type counter than to go from a flinch to a boxing barrage, a Greco-Roman clinch tie-up, or some other MMA-based response. Blauer might make the case that, working backwards from MMA to startle, we will find a gap in coverage that the SPEAR can bridge. I really don't know, and I think that this will probably come down to anecdotes, subjectivity, and speculation.

In the absence of a good reason not to do so, I think we should consider the initial startle flinch to be neutral or agnostic in terms of follow-up techniques, and then line up some major alternatives of things to do next and consider them in terms of observable performance. I think it is legitimate to ask what professional athletes do to get out of trouble when they are hurt, tired, and put against the side of the ring or cage and subjected to incoming strikes.

Sometimes it is a useful exercise to consider the evidence that would force one to change one's own mind on the matter. In the interests of Popperian falsifiability, I suppose that I can say this: to be compelled towards the need for a bridging system, I think I would need to be able to conclude that the type of initial counter that Blauer advocates is accessible---under these very specific conditions---in ways that preferred options are not. Thus, a competing alternative to the SPEAR would not be, for example, a standard boxing combination consisting of a left hook and right straight (or a right straight and left hook, depending on the side from which the counter is launched). The argument for SPEAR might be that the alternative is essentially being trapped in a defensive, protective flinch reaction and absorbing more damage. If recommending a bridging system between flinch and fighting skills, Blauer should try to establish that the alternative to something like the SPEAR would be allowing the opponent to throw additional unanswered strikes (due to an inability to fight back at all).

Unfortunately, it is very difficult to set up a reliable, reproducible experiment that would satisfy all parties. Indeed, the act of making it an experiment might be considered so contrived that it contaminates the data, since participants would probably be aware that this was a training environment and might become unrealistically vigilant as a result. Blauer may be right about the need for a bridging technique between an untrained defensive flinch reaction and the full expression of trained responses; my personal suspicion is that the bridging technique can come from a variety of sources and that ultimately there are more important issues to worry about, anyway.

Shaping the Flinch: Boxing and Muay Thai Training

The "surprise" visual trigger for a flinch reaction may present some interesting questions. Those who have trained in boxing or Muay Thai have seen first-hand how a new student typically reacts to punches coming at his face: hands go out pawing towards the incoming punches, head turns away, eyes are closed. The flinch-plagued student may not be an ambush victim in the classic sense; he is probably not being tricked or sucker punched in an elaborate way, and is probably just engaged in relatively safe, consensual sparring with a training partner. He knows that he will be punched, knows that protective equipment is being worn, etc.

However, a flinch can still be there, and it is frequently exploited by more experienced fighters who will use feints to trigger the flinch prematurely, will move in and out of range to raise the experience of dread and panic, and will throw hook punches from outside angles to get around the new fighter's undisciplined pawing motion. In full-contact bouts, many knock-outs come from just this sort of scenario.

Skilled Muay Thai strikers and boxers will often use the first round to run a kind of diagnostic check on their opponent, and part of this process will involve using quick feints to see what the other guy's response is. If the opponent reacts to a feint with a high-strung, wild flinch reaction, this will be taken advantage of in short order as the more experienced, well-trained fighter can now throw longer and more sophisticated compound attacks without fear of being caught by a sharp counter.

(one of the best strikers in the world, Peter Aerts is a veteran of the K-1 circuit and a product of the revered Mejiro Gym in Holland)

I have noticed a lot of this in my own Muay Thai training, which is now heavily influenced by a coach who is the U.S. ambassador of Amsterdam's famous Mejiro Gym. The Dutch approach to Muay Thai is generally more concerned with footwork, angles, and optimal use of distance than is the traditional Thai version (the Thai fighters often take a hardcore "badman contest" approach and stand in the pocket to trade blows until someone is unable to continue).

One of the ways to avoid a panic and associated, maladaptive flinch/freak-out response is to keep on top of how distances are closing and opening during the fight, and to have a way to directly link a visual cue with a tactical decision. In creating an awareness/decision trigger to use for initiating various techniques, my coaches have been training me to maintain a peripheral awareness of the opponent's feet: if I can see his feet, he's out of range; if I can no longer see his feet, I need to either hit him or get out of there, because blunt trauma impacts are coming my way. In an MMA environment, the situation becomes even more urgent because the striking threat is combined with the threat of being taken down by a superior wrestler, or using one's own takedowns to drive the fight to the ground.

I think it goes without saying that one cannot simply stare at the other guy's feet; the ability to pick up on these visual cues while tracking the opponent's shoulders and hands takes many months to develop, and in practice it can require a constant, small movement of the eyes to direct attentional resources on a moment-by-moment basis.

I think this is one of the reasons that the Dutch-style Muay Thai training has such a heavy cognitive load: even with light, controlled striking, sparring and situational fighting drills can be very mentally taxing and some students later note headaches and sleep disruption. Hours are spent just learning to be able to maintain composure and attentional focus when punches and kicks are coming in, and to execute defensive techniques without going into a flinching, panic-driven reaction (a reaction that usually ends up having us attempt to turn our heads away from the threat while simultaneously throwing our hands out and making futile attempts to push the incoming strikes off. This is the stereotypical novice fighter's reaction to being hit, and it dovetails nicely with Blauer's depiction of a prototype flinch response).

"Hit to the Back Glove"

An essential part of the Dutch Muay Thai training program is to have training partners face each other in fighting stance. One man will then execute techniques---say, a jab-cross combination---while the other holds his rearhand glove---his power hand---next to his face as a target. The glove is held with the palm facing forward as a catcher's mitt for the incoming punches; a small movement is used to snap the palm at the punch at the last moment and create some resistance (note, the technique is slightly different for hooks and uppercuts).

Students tend to progress as they train. In the first stages, the glove is held away from the head because of fear of getting hit. As the student becomes more experienced, he starts holding the target glove closer and closer to his face, eventually reaching a point where the student stays in his fighting stance and his training partner can simply punch directly at his face. At this point, the glove will snap out from the fight stance to intercept that punch with a solid catch.

Variations on this theme take place with other training aids, such as Thai pads and boxing focus mitts: the man holding the pads learns to hold them closer and closer to his face, both to create more realistic targets for his partner and to train his own defense.

Instructors watch carefully for signs of flinching, blinking, leaning away from the punches, anticipation and fear leading to a reaching out for the punches to try to catch them early, and so on. Typically they will tell the student who is doing the punching to slow down if the defender is still dealing with a panic reaction, then they will speed things up again later as proficiency is achieved. It is a classic case of conditioning being used to cause a previous reaction to go extinct. This is not a quick process: conditioning takes many months because it is so difficult to retain composure when being stalked down by a trained striker.

Frequently the link between effective offense and equally capable defense seems to be muddied because of a desire to view them as distinct categories, but the two merge in an important psychological element. The development of an "auto-pilot" defense may create a sense of safety (even if it is sometimes an illusion of safety) that, in turn, allows one man to view another as a prey item rather than a rival. Controlled, cold "predatory aggression" requires this ability to stand apart from the opponent as if he is a member of a lesser, prey species: with this mindset, the attendant and enjoyable hunting emotions can then emerge. The objectification of the opponent may help to suppress panic reactions and to keep attentional resources devoted to exploiting vulnerabilities and hitting targets, rather than to concerns for one's own safety or doubts.

Bar Fights, Sucker Punches, Fences

Many real-world fights occur because of an irrational escalation of commitment: threats, insults, humiliation, and aggressive physical postures ramp the situation to a point where a blow is thrown or, more commonly, first contact involves one individual shoving the other. Thus, the ability to remain on top of a situation and prepare for violence, but to do so from a non-provocative position, offers an advantage. In these real-world scenarios, violence is not a given: one needs to try to remain safe while trying to exploit diplomacy opportunities and talk the situation down (usually by psychological appeasement methods that allow the belligerent party to withdraw with his perceived honor intact).

The pubs and streets of the United Kingdom, particularly in the industrial North, have provided a rich laboratory for interpersonal conflicts of this type. As a result of the (sometimes nightly) selection pressure, the British combatives training community, with its base in doormen and bouncers who have to deal with these situations regularly, has historically led the way in terms of developing viable approaches to street-level conflict management. In the near future, I hope to be able to post some interviews with leading British and American practitioners and to allow them to share their thoughts in ways far more thorough and articulate than I ever could, but for now I will just touch briefly on one original piece of work that has provided a basic framework for many others to use and elaborate upon.

A leader of the movement towards more responsible, effective, and professional streetfighting capability has been Geoff Thompson. Thompson's approach, which mixes combat sports such as boxing and judo with realistic, emotionally-charged scenario exercises (adrenal stress training; to be discussed in more depth next time), amateur MMA bouts (so-called "Animal Days"), and penetrating, almost philosophical insights into human nature, has a flagship tool that he terms "The Fence."

(legendary British doorman Geoff Thompson is perhaps best known for his approach to mitigating the threat of the sucker puncher without resorting to a transparently obvious fighting position that could needlessly escalate a situation)

The Fence (and its many variations; some version of it has been adopted by almost every progressive "street work"-oriented fighting instructor) is essentially a way to manage the uncertainty present in many real-world social situations. Within these scenarios, the potential for sudden, explosive violence exists in a tension with the potential for peaceful de-escalation and resolution. Thompson does not want to provide the spark that ignites the violent fuel present, but at the same time he does not want to get hit with a surprise sucker punch, perhaps being knocked out immediately or perhaps having to wrestle with the startle-flinch problems we have been discussing.

His solution is a physical approach that combines many of the defensive aspects of a proper fighting stance without the provocative, aggressive vibe that a true fighting stance would give off. The Fence, if trained, provides a suitable platform for most of the techniques that one finds in boxing and Muay Thai; in fact, one of my coaches favors a palm-out, Fence-like fighting stance even under normal conditions.

Take it away, Geoff:

Just to tie this back to earlier discussions of Panksepp's emotional command systems and related behaviors: when Thompson mentions the tendency of many people, even trained individuals, to leave the proper "Fence" posture of control and preparation and to make large arm movements and posture, he is raising a real tension between two different aggression types.

As noted previously, territorial aggression, which is associated with the RAGE circuit, is frequently going to dominate in the type of emotional bar fight situation being discussed here. Someone typically feels disrespected, insulted, or otherwise threatened, particularly in regards to status or access to sex, and acts out in a dis-inhibited way (due to the presence of alcohol). You may recall that territorial aggression is experienced as unpleasant: it is a toxic emotion that wants immediate satisfaction (hence the RAGE network). It "wants" the opponent to back down, to display fear and respect; associated physical behaviors include posturing displays designed to make one look bigger (i.e., spreading the arms), a loud voice, shoving, threats.

In contrast, the predatory aggression of the SEEKING circuit is all about stalking and hunting. Researchers studying predatory animals will refer to it as the "quiet bite" because of the lack of a dramatic, unpleasant emotional display. This is an enjoyable experience and most predators are equipped with an algorithmic hunting formula---a blueprint for success ultimately rooted in the mathematics of Nature---that is employed again and again. I note that most top predators do not have reason to fear being physically hurt by their prey items, while a territorial situation between predators does raise the stakes in terms of immediate personal risk.

Before closing, I will simply mention a paradox that will be explored more fully in later posts. The best way to protect oneself is normally going to be a trained response built on a solid foundation of healthy intuitive reactions (assuming mental health is present, obviously). However, the best way to access trained responses may well be to objectify the adversary and view the scenario as a hunting experience, thus engaging the SEEKING system and allowing for an optimal psychological state.

This would serve to make the term "self-defense" an interesting one, as chance encounters between predator and prey become more difficult to classify if the prey item does not perceive the reality of what it is up against, feels confident, and makes the terrible mistake of entering into a fight with a creature armed with evolved traits to hunt and kill that particular prey.

Coming Soon:

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Deep Travel, Part II: Modular Subselves, Wide-Angle Awareness, Fundamental Drives

It's been a long time---sorry for the delays! This second installment in the Deep Travel series will look at some current research that seems to support the idea of a "wide-angle awareness" mode that can be cultivated through adventure travel experiences. A future post will look at the possibility that a lifestyle based around frequent,loosely-structured trips and expeditions could develop this interesting and mysterious psychological capacity. EDIT: I stupidly misspelled "Porges" as "Borges" on the first draft; should be corrected now.

Modular Minds, SEEKING System, and SMR

In order to make sense of this post, a few ideas probably need to be chained together. I'll start with a basic tenet of evolutionary biology and then move through a short list of related ideas, keeping them as short and concise as I can (most of them have been covered in previous blog posts):

1. A human being is a vehicle for Survival and Successful Reproduction (SSR). The Survival component means making it to sexual maturity; Successful Reproduction requires both finding a suitable mate and keeping the resulting, highly vulnerable offspring alive until they themselves reach sexual maturity. After this, we become increasingly disposable from a gene's point of view (and may in fact reach a point where we represent a threat to our own genetic legacy by sticking around long after we are reproductively or protectively "useful" and increasing the competition for scarce resources).

As Matt Ridley has put it: "Like Copernicus and Darwin, Williams and Hamilton dealt a humiliating blow to human self-importance. Not only was the human being just another animal, but it was also the disposable plaything and tool of a committee of self-interested genes."

Points 2 and 3 link the strategic goals of the organism with human evolutionary psychology:

2. In order to accomplish our SSR mandate, we come equipped with certain fundamental drives. These drives, acting both independently and in concert with one another and then interacting with other people and situations, form the basis for what is commonly referred to as "human nature."

The drives of human nature are functionally based on a concept of self: we can transcend the sense of self when we attach ourselves to causes, organizations, or mobs; we can retreat into a more limited and defensive sense of self when we feel alienated, lonely, or humiliated.

3. The fundamental drives are made operational by a complex mental phenomena we will term a sense of self. The sense of self is used to conduct rough cost/benefit assessments by comparing one's current predicament with possibilities; when a possibility looks like it will be favorable to our fundamental drives, the sense of self elicits positive Approach-oriented emotions; when an unfavorable situation arises, negative Withdrawal-oriented emotions are generated.

Point 4 recruits Polyvagal Theory:

4. At the neural level, the basic Approach-Withdrawal responses may be mediated by the vagus nerve. According to the fascinating Polyvagal Theory developed by Stephen Porges, the vagus nerve's deep penetration into the medulla region of the brain has two branches: the "DMNX" branch originates in the dorsal motor nucleus, while the "NA" branch originates in the nucleus ambiguus (note: it is technically incorrect to label the vagus a single nerve; it represents a cluster of nerves concerned with autonomic regulation of the heart and digestion).

Porges is specifically concerned with neural regulation of the heart and the effect that this has on emotions. He observes that the human organism has two primary responses when it interacts with other organisms in its environment:

(1) Assess risks. Default to hardwired defensive behaviors (i.e., those are "on tap" and ready for immediate deployment)

(2) If the situation is safe, inhibit the hardwired defensive reactions (the "4Fs" of Freezing to avoid detection, Flight to escape, Fighting to survive, and Freezing again to play dead if all else fails) and engage with an exploration strategy.

Polyvagal Theory offers us a framework for organizing our thoughts on how the vagus nerve can suppress physiological excitement in order to allow for social behavior (Porges calls this suppression quality "high NA vagal tone" because the projection into the nucleus ambiguus is involved).

A simplistic explanation of Polyvagal Theory might say that a mammal confronting another animal has three neural-hardwired basic reactions:

(1) Freeze (regulated by vagal DMNX circuit)
(2) Fight or Flight (regulated by sympathetic nervous system)
(3) Social engagement (regulated by vagal NA circuit; involves suppression of sympathetic nervous system)

Social animals must possess a way to dial down the effects of fight or flight; doing so involves the activation of the vagal NA pathway, which is what creates the neural background "noise" of high NA vagal tone. In other words, high NA vagal tone indicates that heart rate is being lowered and the animal is being internally calmed.

In the future, I will have much more to say about Polyvagal Theory and a brain structure called the "HPA Axis", and how these may relate to decision-making under stress and uncertainty, but for now we could simplistically state that Approach-Withdrawal behaviors should be thought of as deep, physiological events rather than just abstract, highly conscious thought patterns.

Point 5 re-introduces the work of researcher Jaak Panksepp:

5. Beyond quick and rough Polyvagal reactions, strategies for Approach and Withdrawal are based on a system of emotional circuits. There appear to be at least seven: SEEKING, FEAR, RAGE, LUST, CARE, PANIC, and PLAYfulness. Together, they form an amazing neural complex that Jaak Panksepp has termed the emotional command system.

(Jaak Panksepp)


"...These systems make organisms "active agents" in the world: animals that seek to engage and understand affectively relevant world events as opposed to simply being passive stimulus-response or information-processing behavioral robots."

One exciting area of research is the integration of Polyvagal Theory with Panksepp's emotional command systems. As of now, it appears that the vagal modulation prepares the heart for a heart rate that will match the attendant emotions. An interesting feedback loop develops---one that would be anticipated by practitioners of the Feldenkrais Method and other therapeutic bodywork disciplines. When you experience an emotion, you may also, on a certain level, look inward to make sure that the emotion is reinforced by a matching heart rate. If there is a mismatch, the emotional experience could be short-lived. Thus, the ability to use techniques that target breathing and heart rate may be indispensable tools for actually changing the emotional experience that attends an event.

As a very rough and flawed analogy, one might think of the different command systems as gears in a transmission, and the vagal responses (most notably heart rate) as the clutch that facilitates the shifting of gears. When we use phrases such as "speaking from the heart" or ask someone to reflect on "what her heart says", we may actually be getting at a deeper truth.

Point 6 narrows in on one element of Panksepp's system of emotional cicuits, the so-called "SEEKING" system that could also be described as the innate drive to learn:

6. One particular circuit of the emotional command system, the SEEKING subsystem, encourages gaining knowledge about the environment by using dopamine to make certain types of learning very pleasurable. Neuroscientist David Linden explains it this way:

"The same dopamine neurons that signal the expected amount of pleasure from water also signal the expectation of information, even when that information cannot be put to any use. The monkeys (and presumably humans as well) are getting a pleasure buzz from the information itself...To my thinking, this (is) revolutionary. It suggests that something utterly useless and abstract---knowing merely for the sake of knowing---can engage the pleasure/reward circuitry...ideas (can be) like addictive drugs...the neuroscientist Read Montague, weaving together several strands of thought in cognitive neuroscience from a number of investigators, calls the human ability to take pleasure in abstract ideas a 'superpower.'"

Point 7 gets us from the SEEKING system to a brain state called "sensorimotor rhythm" (unlike the other points, this one does involve a speculative leap into poorly-charted territory):

7. The dopamine pathways employed by the SEEKING subsystem use anticipation as a pleasurable sensation, then deliver a second punch when the reward does arrive (much of the joy of learning stems from developing and successfully testing these pattern-recognition maps and using them to solve problems). Under optimal conditions, the brain wave produced by someone who is in the thrall of the SEEKING system---a state that combines dopamine-salted anticipation with both physical readiness and a background of psychological serenity---has special characteristics and has been termed the sensorimotor rhythm, or SMR spindle.

However, the SMR remains rather mysterious at this point and the links between it and an aroused SEEKING system have never, to my knowledge, been formally presented. I make the connection here because I think this would be a potentially very interesting field of research.

Finally, Point 8 makes the ability to enter an SMR-rich state into a desirable goal from the standpoint of positive psychology:

8. The cultivation of sustained and healthy SEEKING system arousal---thought to be highly correlated with SMR---is the goal of a Deep Travel experience. Possibly, SMR is another name for the transcendent "enlightenment" that is sought by practitioners of some ancient philosophical and religious traditions.

Panksepp himself has made strong remarks regarding the opportunity to (after developing a rigorous understanding of the command systems) systematically harness the power of the SEEKING system to increase quality of life:

"...the SEEKING system, a most intriguing and highly generalized emotional system---one that all the others emotional systems may depend on for their own appointed affairs. ...arousal of the SEEKING system feels good in a special way, but this good feeling is not at all like a consummatory reward. It is the epicenter of the excitement of living, much of which consists of the pursuit of rewards. Perhaps the SEEKING system needs to be recruited for all highly effective educational and psychotherapeutic activities."

Fundamental Drives and Multiple Subselves

(Maslow's original Pyramid of Human Needs)

Recently, the evolutionary psychologist Douglas Kenrick has produced an updated version of Abraham Maslow's famous pyramid of human needs. The new model has similar base components to the Maslow one, but it retains evolutionary specificity where the Maslow pyramid gets into transcendent needs.

(Kenrick's updated version of the Pyramid contains, in ascending order, needs related to immediate physiological survival, physical security, group affiliation/belonging, elevated status within a group, acquiring a mate, retaining a mate, and parenting)

Supporting the work of people like Gerd Gigerenzer, Kenrick and his collaborators believe that the current conflict within economics over rational decision-making---the efficient markets theorists have created a "representative agent" human being who seeks to maximize his utility in mathematically optimal ways, while the behavioral economists look at ways that human beings tend to make decisions that are sharply at odds with classical rationality---fails to take into account the evolutionary context of human decision problems and the modular, toolkit model of the mind.

To Kenrick, the idea of a single, tightly-integrated self which makes executive decisions is obsolete, and should be replaced with a mind of multiple, functional subselves that can make decisions in different ways, depending on the context in which the problem is presented. The subself components obviously correspond to Kenrick's pyramid of human needs; each module is "in charge" of managing a different recurring human problem.

(thanks to the work of men like Doug Kenrick, shown here, and his celebrated colleague Robert Cialdini, the psychology department at Arizona State University has become an intellectual sweetshop for leading works in the exciting field of evolutionary psychology)


The essential point---which will be borne out as we look at more of the work that my colleagues and I have done---is that in order to understand how and what the human mind computes, one must place it in an evolutionary, ecological context. If we want to know why the mind works in a certain way, we must ask how and in what circumstances it would be beneficial to do so. Our brains seem to allocate resources in ways designed to best promote survival and reproduction...

The idea of functional subselves has guided my team's research on what we call "fundamental motives". When you are under the influence of a different functional motive, such as mating or self-protection, you are a different person---you notice different things and you remember different things, and that leads you to respond differently to the same situation.

At any given moment, only one of these subselves is running the show. When you are worried about the band of knife-wielding thugs who just walked around the corner, you are not thinking of romancing your date. Some of your subselves have common goals---befriending a neighbor could simultaneously serve affiliative, self-protective, and parenting goals, for example. But some of them have incompatible goals---your Swinging-Single subself and your Good Spouse subself being the most obvious example.

To make the framework more accessible to non-scientists, Kenrick has proposed colloquial names for the seven different subself components: the Team Player is concerned with problems related to affiliation; the Go-Getter is a status-seeking program; the Night Watchman is concerned with self-protection; the Compulsive is in charge of avoiding sickness and disease; the Swinging Single wants to acquire high-quality mating opportunities; the Good Spouse wants to retain a quality mate; the Parent manages childcare.

In contrast to Maslow's pyramid, wherein the more base and primitive needs are transcended as one moves up the pyramid, Kenrick's approach notes that all of the needs coexist, sometimes peacefully and sometimes not, and remain active. A "higher" module is built on top of, rather than replacing, the previous module:

The philosopher David Hume famously said that reason is the "slave of the passions". Given what we now know about modularity, I would modify that slightly. We have not just one central reasoner inside our heads but several. Which details we notice and remember and which ones we distort depends on what is the most functionally relevant to the subself currently in control. Although we have only one motivational subself in the cockpit of consciousness at any moment, the others have their radar systems running in the background.

I won't belabor this, but there are clear similarities between Kenrick's seven subself modules and attendant human drives and the seven emotional command system circuits put forth by Panksepp and presented in archetypal form by psychologist John Gottman (Gottman's work has been discussed in a previous post here, and clearly integrates Panksepp's research on emotional circuits), although the correlation is only approximate in some cases. I would really enjoy seeing someone establish a synthesis of the Panksepp work on emotional command systems and Kenrick's models for fundamental motivations and subself modules. The two are already very close, but there is an opportunity for some very interesting work.

Another note is that we should distinguish Kenrick's model from Howard Gardner's well-known theory of multiple intelligences (interestingly, Gardner originally listed seven different intelligence types), although I suspect that there would be much common ground involved.

Preparing to Hunt: Sensorimotor Rhythm

The loaded, floating pause---a mix of psychological serenity, vigilance, and physical preparation---that is associated with the SMR spindle spooling up was perhaps most poetically captured by the Spanish writer and philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset in his Meditations on Hunting:

The hunter knows that he does not know what is going to happen...Thus he needs to prepare an attention of a different and superior style---an attention which does not consist in riveting itself on the presumed but consists precisely in not presuming anything and avoiding inattentiveness. It is a "universal" attention, which does not inscribe itself on any point and tries to be on all points. There is a magnificent term for this, one that still conserves all of its zest of vivacity and imminence: alertness. The hunter is the alert man.

(Tony Hiss)

Author Tony Hiss believes that the SMR has its origins in an optimal hunting capacity (and, I would add, in an innate emotional reward system for the development of successful hunting skills), but also believes that it has applications that go far beyond its original mandate. In this regard, Hiss leans towards the "positive" school of evolutionary psychology, which aims to maximize human happiness by finding activities that the brain in programmed to enjoy and then exploring ways to participate in them without hurting other people.


In any event, somewhere along the way the possibilities associated with the sensorimotor rhythm changed and grew. This is what sticks in my mind. At some point after the emergence of the SMR as a new hunting technique that added stillness to restlessness, it went through a kind of metamorphosis and emerged as a winged creature---becoming the larger awareness that's such a distinct and unusual feature of modern human minds.

Triggering SMR: Deep Travel

It seems clear to me that if the SMR represents a mental capacity---or tendency---that our ancestral predator mammals had mastered and that since that time has been handed down through tens of millions of years and is now lodged in both cats and people, it's a trait that humanity, or humanity's direct progenitors, somewhere along the way adapted so as to be able to extract a number of very different possibilities from some so far "incomplete" situations. For cats, the SMR is a pause in the middle of pursuit, a kind of delayed gratification that makes their hunting more efficient---so its presence both reinforces the "first point" of their trips (such as pouncing on a bird) and increases their chances of attaining that goal. Whereas people, as we've seen, can, on occasion, use this same pause---or fermata or expanded moment---to achieve such a wide range of understandings.

-Tony Hiss

(a legendary expedition motorcycle, the Rokon Trailbreaker has been used for adventure trips all over the world, including a crossing of the extremely arduous Darien Gap)

The ability to strongly influence, if not control, the flow of one's thoughts and moods is a central tenet in many disciplines concerned with the art of living well. In light of the work of people like Panksepp, we should probably amend our investigations in this subject in consideration of a more precise goal, the creation of lifeways that achieve optimal settings for our own emotional command systems, while also helping those around us to reach the same place.

In fact, the practical philosophies---Zen,Greco-Roman Stoicism, Epicurean hedonism---all seem to recognize that time spent on regrets, fatalism, and anxiety about future events can ultimately result in the individual experiencing a poor quality of life.

The Zen solution is to accept that all worldly desire will ultimately end with suffering being experienced, and to therefore pursue the elimination of desire through a backdoor: disciplines of so-called "mindfulness" gradually re-orient the psyche towards experience of the world in the eternal present, and then, gradually, both rumination regarding past events and concern about the future can be brought under control.

Stoics, on the other hand, usually seek to divide activities into those that are (1) consequential and those that are trivial; and (2) into those activities that have at least semi-controllable outcomes and those that do not. The result at first pass is a 2x2 matrix with boxes for events that are:

1) Consequential/Controllable
2) Consequential/Uncontrollable
3) Trivial/Controllable
4) Trivial/Uncontrollable

Straightforward logic would have us then concentrate our efforts on those activities that are relatively high in both importance and responsiveness to our efforts (Box 1), and try to forget about the rest. We would possess what psychologists call an "internal locus of control".

If faced with a complex situation that combined features from all four boxes, a Stoic would become process-oriented (since outcomes were not within his locus of control) and tease out the aspects of the environment that did fit within the first box (note that this is not incompatible with Zen mindfulness practices, as a Stoic filter could be used to pre-identify the Box 1 elements and then pass them on to the Zen technique arsenal for concentrated work. An integrated Zen Stoicism might turn out to be one of the more effective approaches in the "art of living well").

The Epicurean position is, of course, that we should seek to maximize pleasure because ultimately existence is devoid of any real, lasting meaning. The straw man version of the philosophy portrays the quintessential Epicurean as a drug-abusing, hypersexual slacker, but in truth the thrust of the approach is to avoid situations that create pain, and a dangerous lifestyle could certainly create pain in the longer term.

Epicurean philosophy was frequently attacked because it counseled students against superstitious beliefs and involvement in political processes in favor of a life that was based on simple and readily accessible pleasures. The irony here is that the sustained enjoyment of simple pleasures actually takes quite a lot of work, and the pursuit of fun can become as much of a challenge as the problems posed by the Zen and Stoic approaches: happiness appears to be mean-reverting (the problem of the so-called "hedonic treadmill") and any new pleasure-generating activity will lose its effectiveness over time. Furthermore, even hardcore Stoics like Marcus Aurelius---apparently an opium addict---often do prefer to engage in pleasurable activities if they are available, subject to the constraints of the situation.

Tony Hiss respects the ancient techniques for achieving a higher consciousness, but he appears to be concerned with an additional, less codified tool for developing it. His cultivation of a particular state of transcendent "wide-angle awareness" could be viewed as a process of turbocharging the SEEKING system by constantly submitting oneself to environments that stimulate---or even overstimulate---the circuit, although Hiss himself does not discuss Panksepp's emotional command systems in his work.

In contrast to the philosophical approaches, which are largely concerned with one's inner psychological landscape and the reduction of distracting mental chatter, Hiss prefers to look outward and to select environments and activities that generate the euphoria and insights of a fully activated SEEKING system. Travel is a key tool in the triggering of the desired mind state,and Deep Travel is essentially a state in which the SMR spindle has spooled up.

In this regard, Deep Travel makes use of the Jukebox metaphor for the mind, a concept that the evolutionary psychologists John Tooby and Leda Cosmides concocted in order to help put a stake through the heart of the Blank Slate model that still finds disciples in sociology. Tooby and Cosmides argue that the interaction between evolutionary drives and the environment is much like the interaction between a customer and a jukebox. The environment pushes the B6 button and a preprogrammed "song" is loaded; a button with no corresponding music selection will fail to trigger a response.

In essence, a Deep Travel lifestyle would attempt to 1) know the available song list (fundamental drives); 2) know the corresponding menu buttons that deploy these songs (emotional command system); and 3)identify environments that successfully hit the right menu buttons and consciously seek them out.

As Far as the SEEKING System and SMR are Concerned, is the Journey More Important than the Destination?

Hiss, realizing that his mission may be too vague for some readers, looks to explain how Deep Travel experiences come about:

Having since that day examined many such "changeover" trips, my own and those of both renowned and of anonymous travelers, taking a look at big trips and little ones, at journeys to nearby places and to faraway, exotic destinations, I've come to understand that the only difference between such greatly rewarding trips and the more conventional ones that get you there and bring you back and nothing much more is that, during the memorable trips, people somewhere along the way enter a different part of their own minds, and begin to make use of an awareness that has its own range of interests and concerns and methods. And when the mind is in motion in this way, the experience of travel changes.

Empiricists would tend to find that passage quite frustrating, as it does not lend itself to quantification or testing. Fortunately, Hiss does suggest some explanations that are based in active research. Although he generally limits his scientific explorations to the sensorimotor rhythm and broad ideas from evolutionary psychology, I believe that someone who wanted to investigate this subject more deeply would benefit from looking at Panksepp's SEEKING system and the Polyvagal Theory of Porges (if SMR involves a reaction "beyond fight and flight" in order to absorb more information, than it should be accompanied by that high NA vagal tone that Borges has discovered).

As before, the Zen/Stoic philosophical paths and Deep Travel are perfectly compatible with one another and could well reap synergistic benefits if pursued simultaneously.

Hiss began his study after considering his own travel experiences and noting a kind of floating, somewhat detached state of both calm and excitement that he often enters when leaving the known and familiar and entering a new, exotic environment. Placed in foreign circumstances and wishing to rapidly differentiate between "safe and "unsafe" aspects of the new place, the mind's pattern-recognition apparatus goes into high gear. Hiss notes that, under these conditions, his brain seems to be operating with a focus on the present---a Zen "mindfulness" effect---and to busy itself with making sense of the new location and identifying those patterns or symbols that would make his life easier. He describes the change in his perspective that comes at the boundary of the familiar/heavily automated and the unknown/novel environments:

Segueing or slipping into Deep Travel can initially seem disconcerting to some people because, although it is a kind of simple internal lane changing or focus readjustment, like shifting your gaze from your laptop to the view out the window, it has an all-at-once impact more like that of an abrupt border crossing---something with the suddenness of the transition line that extends across the center of Korea, where only a razor-wire-topped fence separates urban sprawl and rapid industrialization from deeply forested wilderness with mountains where Amur leopards, Asiatic black bears, and probably tigers, as well, prowl beneath spreading Mongolian oaks.

...there may be times when Deep Travel may be mandatory, a kind of automatic safety feature or emergency override whose function is to offer us a third option between fight and flight, a chance to sit tight for the time being. Which helps us, before we take any action, to gather our wits, sort things out, find out what we can, reassess, and reevaluate our choices. Deep Travel's automatic intervention in such situations is another suggestion that it may be a constantly active state of mind, at least on a standby basis, even when we're not in motion.

In a foreign city, where perhaps little could be taken for granted, new landmarks to use as navigation aids, words for "bathroom" and "coffee", social cues, and so on would all be rapidly assessed (Hiss and others have noted that this effect seems to last for the first 48- to 72-hours of a trip; after that, it begins to wear off as the brain has mastered the basics of the new environment and starts to succeed in creating a sense of familiarity. If the goal is to begin to "look and move like a native", then this familiarity would be beneficial; if the goal is to maintain the buzz of the Deep Travel experience, then the familiarity would be less welcome because it would allow the brain to return to its energy-conserving default state. More on this in a future post).

Where Hiss departs from many travel writers is in his appreciation for the movement aspects of the journey. He finds that long train and bus rides, airport terminals, and jet-lagged hotel room experiences are among the most fruitful of all, as they represent the impact zone where the familiar and unfamiliar sensory stimuli cross. He considers the experience of movement to a destination to be at least as important as the reaching of the destination itself.

Hiss evokes the Anglo-Afghan writer Tahir Shah, who has written several books chronicling his various adventures in South America and the Middle East. Responding to questions about a higher consciousness experienced while traveling, Shah writes that:

For me, the travel is the reason. Yes, I set myself towering goals---to find Solomon's gold mines, a lost city, or the Birdmen of Peru---but these are just catalysts: ways to spark a major journey. There is often little meaning in what one finds, but it is the journey itself that gives meaning to the experience...

Travel is about ripping yourself away from your usual habits and habitat, wiping your mental canvas clean, and in that state absorbing everything that hits it... During a journey one is bombarded with experiences...

(professional explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes began his adventure career when he was sent down from the elite Special Air Service Regiment for attempting to use military explosives to destroy an aesthetically unappealing dam that had been built to support a movie production in scenic Wiltshire. His exploits have since become legend: crossing Antarctica unaided, reaching the summit of Everest at age 65, finding the lost city of Ubar, and many others. In recent times, Fiennes has taken to running mountain marathons and becoming involved in libertarian politics)

Is There an "SMR Lifestyle"?

When it comes to positive psychology, Helen Fisher would probably caution us to avoid making overly broad prescriptive statements. Her own research conclusions strongly suggest that some individuals have more profound novelty/dopamine needs (so-called "Explorer" personality types), and these individuals will also have psychological requirements biased towards seeing the world as an enriched playground. They would be the prime candidates for a Deep Travel-friendly lifestyle (indeed, such a lifestyle might keep them away from harmful addictive behaviors).

One potential lesson we could glean from the work of Tony Hiss is that the transportation component of the adventure travel plan may be at least as important as the destination itself; trains in particular seem to lend themselves to this kind of experience.

I've been attempting to form a sort of informal Deep Travel checklist that would combine the research findings and state them in terms of practical, trip-planning terms. The task is made difficult by the fact that the authors and researchers are coming at this subject indirectly and from many different directions, but I will post any tentative results for reader comment and critique as soon as I have a coherent list.

Coming Next: Possible Battlefield Implications of SMR and Emotional Command Systems