The Wonder of Your Brain; Self Defense?

Posted by: John W. Zimmer
Under: Self-defense
15 Nov 2009


I was reminded on the incredible power of our brain recently as a window in my bathroom fell open. Before I had a chance to think, my body had jumped into a fighting stance as a surge of adrenaline shot through my body and a growl escaped my lips. It was kind of funny but as this was happening I already knew what the affront to my serenity was – the window. But like it or not, I was as ready as my body could possibly be for whatever the external environment might throw at me. This I attribute to my brain’s intervention with my normal thought processes.


The brain at an instinctive level, does not understand the legal definition of self-defense or even care about self-defense, but rather it (the brain) is concerned with self-preservation! This post is not going to cover all facets of brain power like Ki, Chi, or the sixth sense as these concepts are ways of unifying the subconscious mind with the endeavors of the conscious mind. What I will try to cover in part, in this post, is how brain power can help us achieve seemingly superhuman feats! Here is a video I found that sets the stage for this discussion nicely.



This brain series is really quite interesting and applicable for self defense. Firstly what did you think about time slowing down? I have experienced that in the past but I did not really understand how it was possible. It makes sense that speeding up frames per second would create the effect of having more time to think about solutions to life threatening problems.

I had a life threatening situation happen when I was a teenager that I will share. As you might know from reading this blog, I was a bit of a thrill seeker when I was younger. I would try/do almost anything such as hang gliding, scuba diving, karate, mountain climbing, rock hopping and even cliff diving. Here is a quick video I found of a place I liked to dive as a kid.

Oh the confidence (or foolishness) of youth! I probably did about half of those jumps as a kid (while the city still allowed jumping) but never did deadmans. The way I heard it was drunk sailors were the only ones that jumped deadmans. Jumping the clam at low tide was kind of hairy as you would have to time the waves to coincide with your landing. :)

The reason I showed this video is off to the left of the guy, there is an inlet that one can swim into or simply go through the cave under the clam and find a nice rock beach. I was with a friend snorkeling one day at the rock beach and I decided that I was going to scale the cliff to take a short-cut back to La Jolla Cove (where we started out the swim).

I had climbed plenty of mountains in the Mojave Desert as a kid so I did not think this 50 foot rock cliff was going to be any big deal. I started up the cliff finding plenty of hand/foot holds in the sandstone. At about half-way up I ran out of hand holds and got stuck. I still had plenty of strength and started looking around for alternate ways up. Understand that it was at a nearly straight up angle but I had the strength of youth.

I looked right and left but did not find an alternate way up! I quickly looked up again to verify there was not another hand hold I could use and my strength started to weaken. I considered going back down but the angle was too steep and I did not see any foot holds. As I was glancing down I started to see if I could jump to the water somehow but all I could see was where my body would splat on the rock beach below. At that point I remember thinking I was not going to make it because I would lose my grip and fall well before anyone could possibly drop a rope and save me. I had no way out!

All of a sudden an overwhelming calm came over me and I noticed incredible strength surging though my body. I sucked my body closer to the cliff and felt strong! I did not feel like I was about to fall anymore but rather I felt a wave of hope go through me. I looked up and noticed a hand hold that did not seem to be there a moment ago and started making my way up the cliff easily!

That whole day I was happy because I just knew that my maker sent an angel to save me. That meant that my life was to have some meaning. I am only too happy to find a plausable scientific explanation for how I survived that cliff. Had I been an experienced wall climber as exists today I’d bet that cliff would have been easy.

Can your brain power kick into gear when you need it most? The fight or flight response is well documented but how this response makes use of existing skill sets is what I want to focus on here. The firemen in the first video were highly trained back country fire fighters. The brains survival mode apparently sped up their thinking ability in time to make the decision to deploy the fire shelters in time!

I believe that this is a good analogy to self-defense training of any sort. You train the body how to do the various moves in different scenarios in the dojo. You practice fighting skills in sparring as close to the real thing a possible. If you ever end up needing these skills in a fight or flight response, your brain will have the skill set as a possibility in its problem solving arsenal!

One word of caution, for self-defense training/fighting – you will fight the way you train. What does that mean? One corollary here is the way I used to see some karate practitioners throw high kicks. They would lift their arms as they threw the kicks! I used to love fighting guys like this because I would half-step to the side or back and then through a counter punch to their ribs!

So you see if one trains by throwing high kicks wrong (in my view by using their arms as counter balances instead of covering their ribs) – you fight the same way if you end up fighting as part of a fight or flight response!

What are the brain’s options for self-defense? Some options might be commonly taught methods such as avoidance, verbal engagement, trickery, appeasement, acquiescence, flight, and yes even fight! I think the response might depend a lot on a persons training and experience in life. I mean the brain will only consider what it thinks is realistic for a given situation.

A person might not fight back at all if he or she thinks by giving up, the attacker will let them live! So you see the brain in my view is not at all concerned with self-defense but rather with self-preservation!!!

What can you do to increase your chances of self-preservation? I would say that while I am still in awe that the brains incredible capacity to save one’s own life – I still would tend to give it the tools to increase the odds for survival! One should try to stay in good physical and mental shape. Another winning strategy is to take some martial arts training!

Martial arts (read fighting arts) include boxing, wrestling, karate, judo, jiu-jitsu, muay thai or any other fighting method. Alternatively or better yet, additionally – one can create a layered defensive strategy with dogs, non-lethal weapons, lethal weapons, alarms, neighborhood watch programs and trying to avoid potentially bad situations in life.

Sometimes fight or flight is not a sufficient response! I’m sure you have heard tales of a mother running out to the garage to find her husband lying crushed under the weight of a fallen family car! In many of these cases, women reportedly have lifted cars, allowing men to escape!

Wonder Woman had the advantage of super powers but in a story reported here, a woman lifted a car 20 times her weight to save a man. Apparently she crushed a vertebrate for her efforts but she did not feel that at the time. This leads me to believe that your brain allows the body to accomplish seemingly superhuman feats whenever it is overwhelmingly affected by external events.

In the case of the car, the woman’s self-preservation was not at risk but she obviously was affected by her friend being crushed. She got the surge of adrenaline to lift more than her body was normally capable, to the point of injuring herself!

 I think the brain’s goal of self-preservation and its expanded goal (my assertion), of any overwhelming emotional goal is congruent with our goal of self-defense! I would argue that self-defense is more of a rational goal than the more instinctive goal of self-preservation. I also think a person can tap into the brain’s power to use self-defense skills if one practices and truly believes in one’s own ability!

I hope you have enjoyed this glimpse into your brain’s power to harness self-defense!

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3 Responses to “The Wonder of Your Brain; Self Defense?”

  1. Neal Martin Says:

    Hey John- excellent article and very nicely put! I completely agree that the brains first priority is self-preservation as opposed to self defense when it comes to life threatening situations of the violent kind. Self-preservation doesn’t always mean fighting, but can mean running away as well, something I always preach on my blog. I think the adrenal response just heightens and sharpens your existing skills. So as you say, if you train well in martial arts, those skills will be there when you need them.

    These really are incredible machines we are walking around in. Billion dollar machines that existing technology couldn’t possibly hope to emulate. It’s heart-warming when you think about it. I found your story of being stranded on the cliff face very inspiring. It’s good to know that we are carrying around that back-up when we most need it. If I was religious, I’d be praising God right now. Since I’m not, I’ll praise Nature instead, or whatever higher power exists to guide us.

  2. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Hey Neil, I thought this would fit nicely with a lot of material on your blog. I like how deeply you delve into topics.

    I found the brain’s self-preservation to be a lot like muscle memory – you know you can train for a quick response but I had no idea why it worked.

    I have no idea why I made it through that day but it turned out I did have a purpose in life – I’ve raised two sons and four step-children. :)

  3. Neal Martin Says:

    Sometimes it seems like someone is looking out for out for us. The scrapes you get into and then you wonder, “How the hell did I survive that one intact?”

    A lot of mystery still surrounds this life of ours and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.