Deadpan Eyes in Fighting

- Science and martial arts

by Christopher Caileis

Relating Physiology to Karate & Zen for Fighting: Science And The Martial Arts: Deadpan Eyes

by Christopher Caileis of

If you have ever faced an opponent who seemed to look past you, eyes fixed, unfocused and slightly narrowed, the experience can be unnerving. Now it turns out that this look has a tactical advantage too.

I have always taught my students that when facing an opponent you should never focus (fix your gaze, attention or thoughts) on any specific attack once it is launched. This leaves you more vulnerable to a secondary attack because you then have to shift attention and focus (or worse, your thoughts) to what comes next, and this takes time. Instead I have taught students to focus on the entire opponent, and if an attack comes to keep a general focus (dealing with the attack in peripheral vision and reacting spontaneously) so that you are alert to what might come next (Zen state of mind). This way you are able to pick up secondary attacks sooner, sometimes even before their initiation, since your focus (awareness) is general and always alert. (1)

Recent research has added a new twist. It has been found that when you keep your eyes still, not blinking or moving (as suggested above), the perception of time itself slows. Thus, when you keep your gaze steady and unfocused (on an opponent and any potential attack), not only are you able to pick up secondary movement more quickly, but also these movements will seem to come slower (less condensed in time).

A recent study by Concetta Morrone, John Ross and David Burr reported in Nature Neuroscience found that subjective time is compressed around the onset of the normal rapid, jerky eye movements people perform thousands of times daily. These movements are performed automatically to align subjects of interest (something focused upon) with the center of the eye which can perceive in higher definition (high acuity fovea such as are used in reading or other detailed perceptual activities).

In this study participants compared the time between two sets of two horizontal bars flashed before their eyes, the first set just before and the second set just after a saccade (jerky eye movement). Study participants reported that the time interval between the flashed sets of the two horizontal bars seemed to be equal, when in fact the second flash time was one half of the former. Thus the subjective time was doubled near the saccade onset (the actual gap was 100ms versus 50ms).

This has important potential implications for martial artists. If you allow your eyes to dart around in their natural fast jerky movements trying to focus on an attack (such as the arm or fist of an attacking limb) only to refocus again on a secondary attack, the second attack will seem to come faster. But, if instead you control your eyes to keep an unmoving, non-blinking unfocused overview of an opponent, your perception of time and any attack will slow.

This research finding reminded me of the famous essays of the Japanese Zen monk, Takuan Soho, to a master swordsman written three and one half centuries ago. Takuans discourses, while not discussing physical aspects of keeping the eyes fixed and unfocused, do discuss a parallel mental state. Relating Zen to the psychology of conflict, Takuan stresses the importance of keeping the mind stabilized (fixed without thought) during conflict. Takuan cautions the swordsman that if your mind becomes occupied with an opponents attack (such as a downward sword strike) and if the defender thinks of meeting that attack, his mind will stop. This will undo the defender and he will be cut down since the mind was stopped (was filled, something which stops the natural flow of spontaneous reaction). (2)

It is in Zen meditation (practice of the mental aspects) that both the fixed, unfocused gaze and the clear mind are practiced. In sitting, most often the student fixes his or her gaze in front, unfocused while keeping (at least trying to keep) the mind clear of thoughts, ideas or images through intent focus on total awareness and perception. This research study may explain yet another reason why Zen meditation can help in self-defense situations.


(1) See these related articles: Fighting Zen - How Meditation Can Enhance Your Fighting Skills, by Christopher Caile and Controlling The Flinch, The Blink and The Turn Away, by Christopher Caile

(2) See the book, The Unfettered Mind Writings of the Zen Master to the Sword Master, by Takuan Soho, translated by William Scott Wilson. Kodansha Publishing, 1989. paperback, pages 14 and 19.