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Brain Involved in Fear

A common mistake regarding the purpose of studying the five elements is to believe that we somehow “choose” a particular element in the middle of a fight. Such a rational decision-making process would be totally impossible for the vast majority of people. Under the effects of cortisol and adrenaline stress chemicals that flood the bloodstream during a survival threat, rational thinking will be out of the question. If you have ever been in a real fight, you may recall that it is hard to remember the details of what happened. That’s because the rational brain was overpowered by the survival brain.

The real value of studying the elements is that you have a chance to preview the way you might respond. Some people bolt down and hold their ground when under siege. Some bail out and head for the advantage of higher ground. Some “see red” and blow up. How do you respond? Do you know? You might have a chance to see how to use your “That’s just my nature” response to best advantage.

My biggest complaint with martial arts training in the 1960s and 1970s was that there was no training for dealing with the mind under pressure. All we got was technique. And struggling to get a technique to look good in the dojo is a far different thing from struggling to gain control over a maniac who wants to see you humiliated, harmed, maimed, or killed.

What I introduced to the martial art world in the early 1980s was a discussion of the fact that when the survival brain takes over, we had better be prepared for what will emerge. I presented the taijutsu basics through the interpretation of those emotional charges that shape the response while under stress. I believed then, and I believe now, that the most important lesson is how to USE the training to prepare honestly for the possibility of what would happen in a real fight, as opposed to how to DO a set of techniques.

Two key areas of the brain are involved in fear. There is a middle-brain region that dominates when a threat is perceived as far away. A more impulsive region takes over as a threat looms closer.

To find out exactly where our fear resides, British scientists scared volunteers with a Pac Man-like computer game, in which subjects were chased through a maze by an artificial predator. If caught, they received a mild electric shock.

Simultaneous brain scans measuring blood flow showed that when the predator was distant, lower parts of the prefrontal cortex area were active. This region is associated with complex decision-making, such as planning an escape. But when the predator moved closer, activity shifted to the periaqueductal grey area, responsible for quick-response survival mechanisms like fighting, flight, or freezing. It’s a bit like a see-saw — both regions play a role but one becomes more dominant at different stages of threat.

Understanding the shifts in activities between the forebrain and midbrain regions may be crucial to effective self-defense training. That is why I introduce from day one the five element system.

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