Systema, Neurological Reaction Time and LearningAugust 02, 2011 by Andrea Bisaz
A major factor in fighting arts is the speed of response to a
given attack. As we know, this is dependent on many different factors. Timely
action is crucial for a positive outcome with an adversary.
Different fighting disciplines have implemented various
strategies in order to gain a time advantage over their opponent.
A common approach by many professionals such as SWAT Teams,
Special Forces etc. is to use just a handful of very generic applicable
techniques based on gross motor skills. The idea behind this approach is:
- One, to decrease decision time of the mind, thus, to shorten your reaction time (response time) to a given
- Two, the gross motor skills allow people to still perform under duress.
Whilst the response in our brain to physical attack is very
complex and varied, there is an intriguing aspect, which I would like to
discuss. It is important in understanding the response time of the subconscious approach (Systema) as opposed
to the conscious choice approach mentioned above.
It is relatively unknown that when our brain prepares for a
movement, for example, in response to an attack on our person, it will always
do a dry-run first, without activating our muscle and without our conscious
awareness. This means the brain has something like an emulator. Before we
become aware of our intended movement, our brain will dry-run the movement
through its brain maps. This will include hormonal activation, blood pressure
changes and all the usual psycho-physiological adaptations. The only thing,
which is missing, is the activation of our muscles (and our awareness). Only
following this dry-run will our intended movement become conscious and we will
perform this action with our muscles activated. To our conscious minds this
movement appears spontaneous and original, as we are not aware that in actual
fact we have already done it in our brains.
Now here is the difference: if movement is directed by our
subconscious mind or as we call it, if the movement happens spontaneously, then
our conscious response will be the second run through by the brain. However, in
the example of conscious mind control (SWAT team, Special Forces…), if a
technique selection is required, then the brain will repeat the dry-run with
the chosen technique, before activating the muscles in a third run through.
Whilst a small selection number (of technique choices) decreases selection
time, it still remains the third fully performed run through by the brain when
applying a conscious mind approach. Systema, however, relies on a subconscious
response, meaning that we can act on the second performed run through.
Whilst this advantage represents only a fraction of a second, it is nevertheless very significant.
This yet is not the whole story. Where do the brain’s initial
ideas for the subconscious response originate? Neurologists refer to these
sudden reaction movements as Fixed Action Patterns (FAPs). A FAP is a chosen
system by natural selection for a reduction of choice and decision time. In
other words, through past experiences the body has learned to react in a
certain way under certain circumstances (Trigger Event), and in order to reduce
reaction time a quick “movement package” is applied in a coordinated fashion
whenever needed, without the brain having to repeatedly re-invent the wheel.
These patterns are very deeply rooted in our response system. They can range
from very simple withdrawal actions to complex movement patterns. That doesn’t
however make them the best or most efficient choice under any given
Let me give you an example: if you touch a hot object, you will
withdraw your hand immediately in a FAP, nothing wrong with that. On the other
hand, if someone grabs your finger in a finger lock, this same FAP will be
activated putting you in a much worse situation as you have just increased
pressure on your finger lock. How then can we change this situation and how can
we change FAPs or any other rapid reaction movement? …The answer is training.
Training has the ability to override current FAPs.
Let’s look at this a bit closer. The brain has many body maps
spread throughout its different areas. The most basic (and famous) are the
primary motor and sensory maps also referred to as homunculi. These body maps
interact in hierarchical fashion from lower-to-higher-grade maps. Information
from the body enters the primary sensory map and then rises through complex
processing and constant reassessing procedures up to layers of higher maps. The
higher up they travel the more information gets incorporated in the processing
of an action such as emotions, memories, body images, beliefs, pain patterns
etc, etc. On the way up, information gets constantly fed down the chain again
for reassessment and confirmation with new sensory information just entered.
Eventually, appropriate action is decided on and emulated, then fed down
through the hierarchy and all the way to the primary motor maps, from which
muscles are activated and conscious movement arises. Let’s bear in mind that
these complex procedures and interactions take but split seconds to occur. We
also can see that no matter how much we try, every action has an emotional
association attached. We might not be consciously aware of it but it is
Through regular training we can teach our body to behave with
chosen patterned responses to particular situations. The interesting point here
is that we can learn specific patterns (techniques) or we can teach our body principled responses such as relaxed generalized movement patterns.
The difference being is that we allow our bodies to come up with its own solutions to problems as long as it adheres to chosen principles such as relaxed, efficient, natural
movements as in the case of Systema.
In order to allow for this wide range of body applications, we
have to understand that the nervous system works via what we call facilitation.
In simple terms, this means the more we use an action the more likely the same
action will be chosen the next time. Now, if we use a mirror action over and
over again we will eventually reinforce this action in a specific way as a FAP
to be used by what’s deemed as relevant situations (Trigger Event). However, if
we continually vary the specific movements, whilst keeping the modus operandi
more constant, this being a calm, relaxed way of movement, then the quality of
this habit will start to instill itself as a FAP response without a specific
hyper-facilitated movement pattern attached. The brain will then pair up its
own choice of movement pattern, which it regards as most appropriate. It will
draw from familiar movement patterns that have been trained, however, more
‘freedom’ exists, which will be advantageous in adapting precisely to
Once the initial subconscious response has taken place, we can
include a consciously directed action if necessary, as we can perform it
concurrently with the already happening responses, thus, we do not suffer an
apparent time delay. In simple terms, the brain is multitasking (although strictly
speaking due to the on/off nature of the nervous system it is actually an
A subconscious approach requires a certain level of faith, as we
teach ourselves principles, hoping that the best response will be chosen
subconsciously at a time of need. It is a very different approach to training
specific names and techniques for specific situations.
An advantage of the ‘principle approach’ versus the ‘technique approach’ is that the brain does not get bored through endless repetitions of the same movements, as every movement is slightly different and somehow novel. Once the principles have established themselves, a marvelous thing occurs: Instead
of a limited set of technique responses, we now have an unlimited array of
‘principle responses’ available (often referred to as body memory). We have trained our bodies to come up with its own creative solutions to a given situation. Of course the body will
always develop its favorite idiosyncrasies, largely due to neurological
facilitation, individual body parameters and individual abilities.
It is also very important to mention that RELAXATION is
absolutely imperative in order to work subconsciously. When afflicted by
tension (fear, aggression etc) our brains will lose their ability to be creative,
to multitask and eventually to function efficiently altogether. Much has been
written about the debilitating effects of tension on our performance,
especially in the flight-fight situation. It is not the purpose of this article
to discuss this, but I simply would like to stress that it is crucial to instill a relaxed manner of working, if we want work efficiently subconsciously.
It is also important when training for conflict situations to
incorporate regular human-to-human interaction with significant contact such as
strikes, aggressive behavior and the like. This will assist in providing proper
trigger events and help in reconditioning specific ‘approach and avoidance behaviors’
already present in FAPs. If done properly, it will also assist in reducing fear
and pain-based tension.
An additional interesting point is that research has shown slow
training of complex movements to significantly shorten the learning time
required for those movements… sounds familiar?
Now the more we train the lower down on the brain-map-hierarchy
we move the processing. This means that after many years of training our
principled responses can be processed mostly in our primary motor maps. At this
point, we have made the system our own and we will instinctively and spontaneously
respond with FAPs according to our training. In other words, our subconscious mind will now start to
respond spontaneously to an attack in a smooth, creative and intelligent
way just like in training, instead of in a rushed, abrupt and tense fashion. With
appropriate training, we will also be able to work with much less emotional
involvement and less disruptive fear-based tension.
Obviously, technique-based training can override the spontaneous
FAP response too, however, if we continue to involve our conscious mind for
technique choices, we will still react with the third brain run through only.
Alternatively, if Systema practitioners miss this point of subconscious action
either through faulty training or lack of faith/trust, then they too will
respond to the third run through only. This is particularly apparent in new
students and will only change after considerable training.
As mentioned, it is very acceptable, even advisable to use
conscious decisions during a physical conflict but the trick is not to initiate
with a conscious action if spontaneously challenged. Rather intermingle it
sparingly amongst plenty of subconscious work. This will minimize interference
and allow your work to be fast fluid and natural, whilst still maintaining some
conscious strategic control.
As simple as this all may sound, and as easy and natural as a
competent Systema practitioner can look in motion, this is actually very
difficult to achieve. Difficult inasmuch, as it takes dedication and years of
mindful training in order to acquire this natural and efficient
subconscious/conscious response process when under attack or duress. A good
dose of playfulness, dedication and faith can make this journey spectacularly
joyful and satisfying. Not to mention the insight into our persona and our
emotions, which we can gain through introspection and through feeling during