Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Blind Men And The Elephant

John Godfrey Saxe's (1816-1887) version of a famous Indian legend:

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

The First approach'd the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
'God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!'

The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, - 'Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me 'tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!'

The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
'I see,' quoth he, 'the Elephant
Is very like a snake!'

The Fourth reached out his eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
'What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,' quoth he,
''Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!'

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: 'E'en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!'

The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Then, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
'I see,' quoth he, 'the Elephant
Is very like a rope!'

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!


So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

Does not this fable describe much of what is stated within the martial arts and combatives generally. Even those that have experienced combat have experienced only but a part of the combat elephant. For instance, Geoff Thompson's works are based on his experience doing security work, aka door work or bouncing, at pubs and clubs in London. I've heard his insights espoused such that they appear to have taken on the authority of commonly conceived wisdom. Is not he but one blind man attempting to describe an elephant by touching but one part of it? No offense Geoff.

Bruce Siddle is described as being an internationally recognised expert in the study of combat human factors, survival human factors and use of force training. He is the author of Sharpening the Warrior’s Edge which is described as being the first text to provide a scientific explanation into survival stress responses and why survival performance often deteriorates. So many refer to his ideas, although whether or not they acknowledge the source of their wisdom, or even know its source, is entirely another matter. Siddle and his disciples advocate technique selection and training for survival or combat purposes based on certain research. That research is the research conducted by the stress discipline which studies the responses to stress, aka perceived threats, and their effects on health and performance.

When I applied these ideas, these theories and concepts of the stress discipline, to two personal experiences where I was confronted by a knife-wielding opponent in close proximity, I could not reconcile them with my experience. I could not use them to explain my experiences.

Being an accountant, who is obviously dissatisfied with unreconciled states of affair, I went in search of an answer. This search unexpectedly led me to study work of the emotion discipline. The emotion discipline studies the same elephant, however, they study different parts of that elephant to that studied by the stress discipline. Unbelievably, to me at least, these two disciplines do not tend to reference each other's concepts and theories. Richard Lazarus, author of Stress and Emotion: A New Synthesis, refers to this separation of fields as an absurdity. Absurd it is. An absurdity that carries over to the martial arts/combative discipline.

The stress discipline and the emotion discipline appear to me to be two blind men attempting to describe an elephant by touching one part of it. The elephant being the evolved survival process of human beings. Surely, if you base your interventions on an understanding of this elephant based on the understanding of one of the blind men there are potential problems. At the very least, you may have overlooked certain answers to certain problems because of an incomplete understanding of the entire beast.

Siddle, in the last chapter in his book, the one that he describes as being the most important to him, explains:
This chapter attempted to establish a scientific basis for the need of values and belief systems in survival and combat training. The theoretical basis for this assertion is valid, but verifiable research to support this theory is yet to be documented. However, it is hard to argue that the presence of death does not have a profound effect on performance.
The verifiable research that Siddle suggests does not exist, does exist. He simply needs to reference another blind man studying the same elephant. The emotion discipline.

Survival is a process. If you don't understand that process, well ... There is an evolved process. A process we all have encoded into our DNA. Then there is a learned process, or learned elements of that process, that are designed to improve on nature. Improve on the evolved survival process. Siddle suggests that 'instructors have a moral and legal obligation to constantly research methods to enhance training and, ultimately, to assure the survival of their students.' He suggests that 'survival skill instructors have the responsibility to provide students with techniques and tactics that may save the student's life or the life of another. A responsibility of this magnitude that should not be taken lightly.' I agree. Does it not behove us to understand the entire elephant. We need to constantly question our assumptions. We need to take advantage of other's research, insights, and knowledge.

I've integrated the theories and concepts of the stress discipline and the emotion discipline in order to attempt to understand the entire elephant. Understanding the entire elephant enables us to better assess the advice provided by Siddle and others. It also provides the basis of assessing the teachings of all activities associated with dealing with physical violence. And, it provides the tantalising opportunity of providing a holistic solution to the problem.

PS: I recently saw a TV program which suggested an African problem where elephants appeared to be deliberately targeting humans was due to the elephants experiencing post traumatic stress resulting from their witnessing the slaughter of their own kind and family members. An understanding of this survival process offers the tantalising prospect of assisting in the management and recovery of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). As explained in my previous post, I've used this model to understand and manage my own 'burnout', and the apparent inexplicable anger manifested in a young man following his violent attack.

We, as martial arts instructors, are often on the front line when dealing with people with PTSD of various degrees. Does it not behove us to understand the mechanism that produces this condition? I wish I had the knowledge I have now when I was teaching certain individuals; teaching with an incomplete assurance that I knew what I was teaching. Of course now I'm having to apply this knowledge to aid in my own recover from burnout.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Wow, isn't this so cool!

I haven't posted a blog for a while, very unlike me, but there is a reason why.

While drafting Injury Science, Pain, and the Martial Arts, I used a quote from Jill Bolte Taylor. She is an amazing women with an amazing story which she shares in My Stroke of Insight. Jill Bolte Taylor is a neuroscientist who suffered a debilitating stroke.
Jill Bolte Taylor was a 37-year-old Harvard-trained and published brain scientist when a blood vessel exploded in her brain. Through the eyes of a curious neuroanatomist, she watched her mind completely deteriorate whereby she could not walk, talk, read, write, or recall any of her life. Because of her understanding of how the brain works, her respect for the cells composing her human form, and an amazing mother, Jill completely recovered her mind, brain and body.
It is truly an amazing story. In the book she writes, when she realised she was having a stroke, that after she thought, Oh my gosh, I'm having a stroke. I'm having a stroke!, the thought flashed through her mind, Wow this is so cool!. She writes that she kept thinking, Wow, how many scientists have the opportunity to study their own brain function and mental deterioration from the inside out?.

I'm having a 'Wow, this so cool!' experience of my own. No, I have not suffered a stroke,thank God. Rather, I have been diagnosed with extreme physical, mental, and emotion fatigue. I have 'burnt out'. I won't bore you with the boring details of the reasons why I burnt out, nor the boring symptoms, nor what I need to do to recover. But what I will share with you is that burn out relates to the activation of our stress/fight-or-flight responses.

While I'm writing a series of books, the one I really want to write is tentatively titled Beyond Fight or Flight. In that book I integrate the theories and concepts of the stress discipline and emotion discipline to develop a stress/fight-or-flight/survival process model that can be used to understand and explain the naturally evolved response mechanisms that are designed to assist us survive in the face of danger or threats.

The responses to perceived threat, harm, or opportunity are interrelated feeling, physiological, and behavioural responses. Combative methods and training methods are designed to improve on the evolved responses. However, most of what is used to critique or design survival or combat training systems (as Bruce Siddle puts it)is based on the work of the stress discipline and tends to focus on the physiological response which defines the output of the process in terms of effects on health or performance. The emotion discipline studies the exact same process, but focuses in more detail on the perception/appraisal of a stimuli that elicits these responses, the feeling and behavioural response, and defines the output of the process in terms of the intended effect on the initiating stimuli - the threat, harm, or opportunity. Quite remarkably, these two disciplines studying the same process, but focusing on different parts of the process, do not refer to the work of the other discipline. I refer to these two disciplines as being two blind men of Indostan who are studying the same 'stress elephant' by feeling one part of the elephant, and describe the whole based on the one part they are feeling. 'Though each was partly in the right, And all were in the wrong!'

Post Traumatic Stress (PTS) is the activation of this process by subconsciously reliving a traumatic experience. One of the recommended treatments involves a three step process with step number one being an understanding of the process itself. In this way, the person experiencing these responses can interpret them on an intellectual level rather than an emotional level. This lessens the intensity of the responses and provides the means to manage them. This is the same approach used to manage acute or chronic pain. Pain can be understood in the same way using the stress/emotion process model, and can be a stimuli that elicits these responses or be a response to another stimuli. You'll have to read my books to understand more.

I've discussed my work with relatively few. The first was with the teenage son of a very old friend of mine who had been mugged by two older assailants. One of the assailants attempted to slash his face with a stanley trimmer when the teenage son attempted to rise from the ground after being king hit. He put his hand up to protect his face and received a deep cut to his hand. He contacted me because after the incident he was feeling intense anger at times and he didn't know why. It concerned him enough to reach out for help. Wise beyond his years. When I showed him my process model and explained the evolved process, he understood what was happening to him. This took away the confusion of not knowing, a source of anxiety itself eliciting its own responses. It reduced the intensity of the anger as he could intellectually understand where it was coming from, and provided him with tools to manage it. He was experiencing a degree of PTS, and this approach appeared to help him recover.

I wished I'd had this knowledge in my teaching past. I can vividly remember a young man who did private lessons with me after being bashed unconscious by a group of men. I now understand he was suffering from PTS to some degree, and now I could help to a far greater degree. There have also been any number of women who attended our women self defence classes that could have benefited from this knowledge. And through the ripple effect, many other women who have been assaulted and who are experiencing some form of PTS.

Another friend explained that my explanation of this evolved process assisted her in dealing with a situation involving an argument with her partner. She understood what was happening to her on an intellectual level which gave her pause and allowed her to deal with the situation on an intellectual level rather than an emotional level.

Now me. I was like the teenage son of my old friend. I was experiencing extreme emotions with no apparent cause. Extreme anxiety, sadness, and depression. I, being me, suffered alone and buried myself in my work. When I realised I was in serious trouble, I reached out for help. One of the people I reached out to was the father of the aforementioned teenage son. Immediately, he suggested I might be suffering from burn out. A bit of research confirmed the suspicion, as did a psychologist's diagnosis, and that it comes from the activation of the stress/fight-or-flight process that I had been studying.

'Wow, how many people get to experience the stress/fight-or-flight process that they have been studying from the inside out.' I can vouch for the fact that knowledge of this process and what is happening to me is a huge source of comfort and takes away a stressor that in it self is responsible for activating these responses. By processing the responses on an intellectual level rather than an emotion level the intensity of the responses are lessened. Knowing it's an evolved response in all humans, in fact all mammals, takes away the self-judgement that is also the source of its own responses. I've been given a tool to manage my condition, and to develop a strategy for recovery based on an understanding of what is causing what is going on, and what is going on.

My experience has confirmed what one friend who read a draft of my original work on the subject said about this work - I am on to something here.