What would make somebody want to dedicate their life to martial art? This is a question I have asked myself thousands of times over the years. Since starting at age 6, martial arts has been central to my life. This is something that would appear incongruent with my personality and any conversation that a casual person may have with me. I will gladly talk your ears off over the things that I have an actual interest in such as Philosophy, Economics, Quantum mechanics and Relativity. So why Martial Arts still?
I am an auto-didact (self taught). This is true of all areas of my study/life be it building a house by hand or learning neuroscience. This is necessary because I did not go to school. Before completing year 9, I was kicked out of school, although this was no great loss as I had learnt nothing up to that point anyway. Looking back it would have been great if I had followed a family tradition of sports or attended university a few decades earlier. But the easy road was not for me and like many Martial art stories, I had a less than ideal environment.
What martial arts did teach me was confidence. Not just the physical confidence that many people growing up in bad neighbourhoods need, but a confidence in ability to overcome. The journey of martial arts is a humbling one, no matter how gifted an athlete or an intellect, you will take your losses. It is inevitable. The 1% of the 1% still loose, still have bad days and still have to overcome. In Martial arts it is absolute, physical, tactile and primal. There is no denying when you have met your match, just as there is no excuse you can sleep with when you know you should have or could have done better, but you didn’t put in the work when you needed to. Martial Arts isn’t a metaphor for life, it is life, teaching you bitter and tangible lessons that are an affront to your health, identity and ego.
What is so appealing about Martial Arts?
What is it that is so appealing to us about martial arts? At the a deep level of experience, it appeals to our primal brains in a very axiomatic way. Primitive systems in our ancestral brains continually relativise us to an immediate or conceptual social hierarchy. The endocrine system (hormonal) and every aspect of our sympathetic physiology incentivises our interactions with this social environment from pilo-erection (chills) when you watch a horror movie to butterflies and increased heart rate when someone flips you the finger on the highway.
Violence can be separated into two distinct categories; Predation (kill shot) and Dominance display (aggression). Both arouse our bodies in different ways and have different agency behind their actions. Predation is clinical, swift and un-emotive, predation is pragmatic and seeks to achieve positive asymmetry in caloric output vs intake. Dominance displays, in contrast, are loud, aggressive and emotional charged, yet may or may not result in any physical interaction let alone damage.
Men are stimulated by the interplay of dominance displays, albeit usually passive aggressive ones such as soccer or rugby, to out right dominance displays such as fighting. These are all however mock displays, and we know this, although they are distinctly different to the rules of play (play requires 70/30 win/loose asymmetry in mammals before it becomes an outright dominance display). This is why we are attracted to the ‘drama’ of confrontations in pro-wrestling and buy the hype when we thing a ‘real’ fight will break loose in a Boxing or cage fight as things get personal.
A Dangerous sport and Order from Chaos
Ironically, selection of alpha males in humans, actually takes on the dynamic of a reverse-dominance hierarchy. Meaning no one male is strong enough to dominate even a small group of men physically, let alone with the introduction weapons. So what we actually have is a ‘democratic’ tendency to sceptically allow leadership, under the proviso that it appears to be of the greatest utility and servitude to others in the group.
So why are we still fixated of the physical dominance? There is always an inherent survival advantage in physical health and prowess and women also know this. So there is a Darwinian advantage in sexual selection as well as adaptive survival to individuals with physical dominance, meaning the stakes are still about as high for you, as a mamal, as they ever where.