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Paul Herbert 5th Dan
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Attention and Karate
By Lester Ingber

Refering to the article "Why Do Karate?" in http://www.jkasv.com/articles/articlesmain_files/archive-25.html, my own reasons for starting karate in 1958 draw from most of the reasons listed in that article. However, the only reason that kept and still keeps me motivated to persevere in my training has to do with considering karate as an important life-tool to understand and teach attention processes which we all use to varying degrees in many daily and professional activities.

During my Instructor's training, Sensei Okazaki asked me why I trained in karate. I replied that when I was 17, at Caltech, my eyes were first opened to see that Physics was a tool for me to study physical nature, and also to see that karate was a tool for me to study human nature; he was very excited by this idea. Sensei Nishiyama told me that when he was training in Japan, several people experimented with different conditions to study influences on attention, even training in candle light; he admitted that they realized they knew too little. So it should not be surprising that some advanced karate people such as Senseis Nakayama and Nishiyama were very excited and continually supportive of my research into the Physics of karate (my Instructor's thesis in 1968) and into attentional processes as used in karate. It also should not be surprising to the reader that many other advanced karate instructors couldn’t care less about such studies; they certainly train for some of the other reasons mentioned in the above article. I believe that these studies into the physics and attention of karate have in fact been effectively used to develop practical exercises that have benefited many people.

Early in my training and teaching, I saw that karate, especially Shotokan Karate, possessed very fast and strong techniques for both offense and defense, and that a lot of free sparring took place at distances and time scales permitting just one or two considered or actual sequences of perception to actions; much like seeing ahead one or two moves in a dynamic chess game. This meant that patterns, not reflexes, likely are processed by advanced fighters, within time scales of at most a few tenths of a second. This is barely in the time periods when we can generate short-term memories, which is a primary process of consciousness. I hoped that karate training could be a probe just sharp enough to probe these attentional processes underlying consciousness.

Perhaps uncovering the essence of consciousness was too grandiose at that time, but most certainly the study of attention bore fruit in many ways. Those early interests grew into a fully developed theory of the physics of the brain, which I published over a period twenty years and incorporated into sets of karate exercises to help students understand their attention processes. This also led to an alternative school I ran for eight years 1970-1978 in over thirty disciplines, using part-time faculty and graduate students from UC San Diego.

While I believe my work in physics of neocortex gives the most detailed calculations of short-term memory and is able to detail properties of electroencephalography (EEG), it only hints at some constraints on consciousness. While I believe my work in developing training exercises for karate, as well as for studies in academics and fine arts, has been extremely useful for many students, (e.g., permitting insights into free sparring in only after a few years for many students that otherwise would have to have trained two or three times that time) I cannot say that those results I perceived can be unequivocally scientifically proven.

So, at least the karate exercises I developed and used for many years by a few thousand students are useful exercises for training. Sets of exercises using standard conservative Shotokan Karate techniques can be found in my karate books, which the publishers have permitted me to offer at no charge online at http://www.ingber.com/.

The approach I developed is based on the premise that there are two kinds of attention. For the purposes of this article, to keep it to the point without bringing in a lot of other research (which can be sought from my webpage or a Google search), I will simplify the descriptions. (a) Global attention is what some people would describe as subconscious processing, where patterns of brain activity flow relatively freely. This also is typically part of the "aha" experience when some detail seem to just pop out from nowhere. (b) Selective of focused attention, often controlled by conscious thought, is now considered a bona fide brain process (it wasn't back in 1970!), regulated by short-term memory and its constraints -- the ability to hold up to seven, plus or minus two, packets of information (which may be packets at abstract levels representing lots of other information) for auditory memories, and four, plus or minus two, for visual memories.

For example, in sparring, it clearly is an advantage if you can guide your visual and/or auditory senses to process incoming information as directly as possible into information that can be translated into effective somatic senses ("body" language). Most people will run several cycles of decisions (and indecision) using their auditory and/or visual languages, taking as long as seconds before committing to body action -- too slow for advanced sparring! Worse, many people permit their emotions to interfere with and prolong these attentional processes, Perhaps "permit" is an unfair characterization, since it often takes a lot of training to short-circuit emotions so that they do not interfere with faster and more required attentional processes, especially during sparring. Proper training also can help to wisely use emotions for motivation, or for demotivation of opponents.

I think most readers get the idea of why and how karate can be used as a tool to learn and teach karate, and how such study and training can give insights or at least better control over other states of consciousness -- all this while improving your ability to spar!

Following are several exercises from Chapter 3 of my 1976 book, "The Karate Instructor's Handbook." They are very simple and can be used for a full range of students at different levels of training. Unlike my other two karate books, in this text I decided to have a talented artist draw outline figures from photos. The idea was that readers might be able to better imagine themselves participating in the exercises. I guess the success of this strategy depends on your point of view.

Selective/Focused Attention - Exercise 1

We are so accustomed to "paying attention" to common tasks, we often do not consider which senses are being used and how they are being used. If we to further train these senses, we need to better understand them. This exercise helps to separate some of the variables involved in focusing attention on an opponent. Step-in-punch in a straight line towards an opponent who is steadily drifting away, moving from side to side. Keep your eyes fixed on the opponent so that your visual attention is occupied, and try to retain a sense of concentration on the most centered feeling in your hips that you are capable of.

In karate, hip-centeredness is essential to develop strong body techniques as well as to facilitate correct mental activity. You should strive to become aware that your hips, especially as centered about a point midway on the diagonal line that connects the navel to the tailbone, comprise your motor center. Accordingly, as you become more proficient, you will find that your body acquires a "will" of its own, and you won't need to rely on much conscious activity to support its actions. This will free your mind, facilitated by your other sensory systems, to engage in strategy.

Global Attention -- Exercise 14

This exercise trains keeping global attention open to a wide spatial field of possible attacks. This becomes obvious as the leader of this exercise exploits weaknesses in the defender. Most often, the defender gets stuck trying to "pay attention" to each attacker using attention similar to that used inExercise 1, a strategy that typically fails. Two attackers face a center defender at a relative angle of 90 to 180 degrees (at the 10:30 and 1:30 positions of the small hand of a clock, or the 3:00 and 9:00 positions, with the defender at the center facing 12:00). One other person behind the defender (at 6:00) gives the attackers the signal to punch (Figure 3-2). The best response from the defender is achieved if both attackers are integrated into one rhythm and variations of this rhythm excite the appropriate reaction. Each time the signaler commands an attack, the defender must block and counter (punch or kick), then be ready for the next attack if the signaler signals twice. The defender must keep awareness of both opponents, yet execute consecutive concentrated blocks and counterattacks each time.

Exercise 7

To further emphasize the utility of keeping focused attention in hips, as in Exercise 1, while keeping your global attention open to a preset range of information as in Exercise 14, another auditory-pattern exercise is to react to the command "punch" or "kick." Have a partner give you either the command "punch" or "kick" as he/she chooses, alternating or repeating them in succession, so that you do not know which one is coming. It is best to give about three successive commands, each one triggering a successive technique:

Punch or kick


Punch or kick


Punch or kick

Best reactions are obtained by having the hip-center react to the command as if it were a variation of the single pattern comprising both possible commands. Interpret the command "punch" or "kick" by allowing the power to travel from the hip-center through your leg or arm, respectively. If instead of centering this power, your attention flits back and forth between an arm and leg, your body will not be maximally primed to do the required technique.

If these ideas and exercises seem very simple, good! They were considered revolutionary at the time, but I expect that since then many instructors have created superior explanations and practical applications of the physics and attention of karate.

Train hard, train long ...