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Disclaimer Although I haven't belonged to a dojo for many years, I do still use many of the things I learned from doing ki aikido, and might even, one day, try to start up formal practice again(though at the moment this feels unlikely). It's always possible that someone will look me up on the web and find this, so I want to clarify. I consider this article to be respectful and un-offensive but people read in many different ways and it is impossible to write anything which is misunderstanding-proof. Therefore, for any fellow aikido-niks who have stumbled here, and can't fathom my attitude, I have written a few extra words.



Just Your Imagination?

Part 2: Feel the Force

Barefoot sceptic Martin Parkinson 'fesses up and counts his new age brownie points.


First published in: The skeptic Vol 19 no 4 Winter 2006


I usually find magic irritating and certainly didn't think I knew how to perform any myself, so I was most surprised, while watching Derren Brown on TV (Channel 4 2003), to see a trick which I know how to do. He goes to a boxing club full of beefy chaps presumably in heavy training. He then casually calls in a petite young woman (who we assume is a member of the TV production crew) and invites one of the athletes to lift her off the ground as she stands facing him. Of course he does so easily, holding her on either side of the ribs somewhat below the armpits. Brown then issues the challenge a second time to the same guy but gives him The Stare, tells him he will NOT be able to lift her, says "wait!" (homophone of 'weight') then stands behind him frowning furiously and extending magic rays through his fingertips. Sure enough, the young lass remains rooted to the spot despite much evident straining from the bruiser. We're supposed to think it's hypnosis but it is actually all down to the assistant who employs an easily learned physical technique. I'm a scrawny wee thing myself and I can do it too; in my favourite version one allows oneself to be hoisted aloft by two people, one then 'turns it on' and sinks gratifyingly back to the floor. As this was not taught to me as a secret trick I don't see that anyone can get upset if I tell you about it.

How do I know about this? Well (author coughs and looks sheepish), I learned to do 'unliftable body' as part of practicing a martial art called Ki Aikido. Aikido is a 'soft' martial art which uses the concept of ki , pronounced 'key', (a Japanese near-cognate of the Chinese chi or qi, pronounced 'chee'). Ki aikido is a minor variant which lays particular stress on ki and reserves a part of each class for 'ki development', where, amongst other things, you learn to do exercises such as the above. This article is mainly about 'ki development' and I must stress that I am most definitely no sort of expert on aikido or ki; I just want to point out some interesting things. The soft martial arts are an occasional subject for sceptical debunking (e.g. Brice's article in The Skeptic 1994 number 4) and to be honest, it must seem a bit like shooting fish in a barrel. Ki seems to have a number of mundane meanings but also refers to a sort of ultimate stuff out of which the universe is made. You have your own personal allowance of ki : it is what (ultimately) keeps you alive and you can learn to amplify and direct it (Tohei 1966). Practicing aikido gains me quite a few new age brownie points and I'm also in very good company: Charles Tart the parapsychologist is an aikidoka, and he has a whole entry to himself in The Skeptic's Dictionary! (Tart 1986, Carroll 2004).

I imagine you've already guessed that I don't believe that ki is literally a mysterious and powerful force, but that I do nevertheless consider ki training to be of both psychological interest and real personal value. The reason for this is that ki training is basically about the manipulation of attention, including one's own (as is magic, I'm well aware). The strange martial arts effects - the no-contact throws, the soft touches which feel amazingly powerful - are produced on your opponent by, in the useful aikido phrase, "moving their mind".

Now you might think belonging to a ki aikido dojo means rubbing shoulders with a load of new age [insert your favourite term of sceptical abuse here]. The reality is less of a caricature: ki aikido collectively seems to be resolutely agnostic as to the nature of ki and although the matter is never in my experience discussed (when the subject has been raised by newcomers in the pub after training it has always been very quickly and politely kicked into touch), I am pretty certain that many participants share my view that ki-language should be understood metaphorically. However, yes, aikido does attract some people with interests in 'alternative' whatnots and yes, this does, sometimes, kind of ..errm... bother me. I'm working on it.

Manipulating your own attention

If you wish to experiment with unliftable body yourself (don't try it in a room with a low ceiling) instructions are given, together with a historical sidelight about its use as a stage trick, by Collingbourne (2002) who is both a second-dan black belt and a magician and therefore has rather more authority than myself on the matter. The effect is actually more startling as a performer than a spectator. As lifter, it does not feel as if your liftee has gained weight; it feels as if you are suddenly unable to get a proper grip, as if their skin is somehow detached from the underlying muscle and you are forced to try to raise them by the impossible method of pushing upwards against their skin.

Unliftable body obviously can be explained in terms of biomechanics and the version described earlier is probably partly effected by a very slight forward shift in the liftee's centre of mass. But an important point is that there are many ki exercises (most of them unspectacular stability tests), which each seem to have different and obscure mechanisms. So how are all these exercises taught and learned? One learns to perform them by means of generating a single specific bodily sensation which correlates with performing the exercises successfully: switch the feeling on, the appropriate bodily shifts and relaxations occur automatically. This sensation of 'extending ki' or 'keeping one point' is partly characterised by a sensation of 'openness', of 'lightness', of one's attention being spread in a wide arc rather than a narrow beam, of a kind of suspension of judgement. Relaxation is important: tense and resistant people are much easier to hoik around. Ki development is partly about learning to move efficiently and developing body awareness. I find this more helpful (and fun) than the somewhat ponderous auto-suggestions of the eminently respectable Alexander Technique (a mere personal preference, I hasten to add).

If you saw Psychic Secrets Revealed (Channel 5, 2005) you might think my account of unliftable body is naive in discounting the possibility of suggestion being a causative factor. In the second episode there is a variation of the effect reproduced from a Uri Geller performance: three people (plus the magician himself) are invited to lift someone from a chair using only their index fingers. They are told this is impossible and indeed when they try it, the liftee budges only slightly. They are then led through a ritual where they pile up their hands over the top of the liftee's head, before hoisting him up easily. Clearly, suggestion does play a part in this: four people (or rather three, as the magician himself is one of the lifters) can easily lift one seated person, even with just their index fingers, but note that the magician has to hustle and lead the lifters through this part of the trick (without appearing to do so), so that they do not get a proper chance to try: they are not responding to a simple suggestion that they cannot lift the person, but to more active manipulation. The funny little ritual of hands-over-the-head probably does have an effect on the liftee's mind and its form is not arbitrary: had they say, taken two steps back and then crouched down on the floor, it may not have worked as well. This is because, in line with my previous discussion, tense people are easier to lift than relaxed people and the effect of crowding round the liftee's head is to induce tension (try for a moment to imagine yourself in his place). I try to be careful not to use 'suggestion' as a catch-all explanation; I want some detail about the actual suggestive mechanics.

'The mind leads the body'

Imagine you are in a ki development class doing the exercise 'unbendable arm'. You hold out your arm in a vaguely pointing manner and your partner stands beside you and puts one hand on your bicep and the other underneath your wrist and applies pressure so as to bend your arm at the elbow, moving your hand towards your shoulder. If you tense your arm, this is rather easy to do, as, amongst other things, you will be contracting the bicep and thus assisting your partner; whereas if you relax, your arm will be, as advertised, unbendable. This is pretty easy to learn, especially if you experiment with various mental tricks and visualisations, and you soon get used to remaining unaffected by having someone impressively larger than you mysteriously attached to your arm, heaving away. So then you hold out your arm, relaxed and confident, your partner puts their hand on your bicep and moves their other hand towards your wrist. Then something odd happens, not exactly a distraction, more a sort of very slight violation of expectation, hardly anything at all in fact. Then your partner's hand touches your wrist ever so gently, your arm bends easily and you think "Uhhh?". The exercise has been cranked up a notch.

What happened was that a miniscule pause was inserted into the proceedings. Even when you work out why it happened it seems a bit outrageous to be bested by such a tiny movement: your arm bent because your attention had been very subtly engaged. (It occurs to me that 'applied kinesiologists' might inadvertently use this device in their 'muscle testing'). The ki aikido slogan "the mind leads the body" is, I think, quite a nice encapsulation of this kind of effect. Your arm bends because 'your mind is moved', your attention is narrowed, you tense a little. We do even speak of someone being "thrown" as a metaphor for brief mental confusion.

In unbendable arm , it is just possible to be conscious of what is happening, whereas in the speed of an actual aikido technique, especially performed by advanced practitioners, actions and responses barely pass through consciousness. Tiny cues cause responses in a speedy interactive dance, too quick to think about. Soft martial arts might sometimes work very well on people who don't 'know the script' because some of the cues lead to a universal response (for example, we'll all shy away automatically in reaction to fast movement in the vicinity of our eyes); the faster the interaction, the smaller the cue can be and the less we'll be aware of why we got out of the way. Watched from the outside this can look a bit fake, but experienced from the inside it feels distinctly odd - like nothing much exactly, but irresistible nonetheless - perhaps like being squished to the ground by a giant invisible balloon. As there is little conscious information about what went on, this is the best construction your mind can make when it tries to reconstruct what happened. A point to note is that being able to lead and direct people's attention in this way is only possible where participants have some minimum physical distance between them: for this reason you could not really have such a thing as 'ki judo' (Tokitsu 2002, discusses this last point at length).

The above is, of course, an example of ideomotor action and rather than quote Ray Hyman's famous essay on the subject (2003) I shall offer my own slightly whimsical account. Ideomotor action is said to occur when your brain gives your muscles a purposive instruction without consulting your consciousness in circumstances where your consciousness thinks it ought to be consulted. I find this rather comforting in a martial arts context: basically if your brain calculates 'danger' it shoves you out of the way pronto, and won't hang about listening to any fancy cogitation. The ideomotor effect explains why some people believe in guardian angels and much else beside - and even if you know all about it, it still works and it still feels bizarre.

Nevertheless, in aikido practice there is very often an element of 'following the script' where people breakfall because they know they ought to; in fact it would be impossible for this not to happen fairly often. What sometimes then happens is that their practice partner says "That was a dive - please don't breakfall unless you have to". When you roll in response to situational pressure there is no feeling of inevitability, no squishy balloon, but there might be a sort of 'double consciousness' of the type I mentioned in part 1: it was real, but when someone calls you on it, you realise that it was also pretend.

Trouble with metaphor

You might be muttering "all right, I'll grant you that some people take new age notions non-literally, and maybe ki aikido in particular is more sensible than I originally thought and might even do you some good if you're stressed or clumsy or have a bit of a bad back or whatever, but plenty of folk do believe all sorts of stuff about vital forces literally. Quite apart from people being killed by charlatans on the back of this nonsense, we simply should not be believing such ridiculous stuff in this day and age". One could hardly disagree, but 'belief' is complicated and nuanced; what exactly do we mean by 'belief' anyway and how much choice do we have about it?

Here we have drifted back to the alternative healers who introduced part 1. I characterised what they are doing as "making people feel better when they feel bad". We, looking from the outside, are able to distinguish between the organic illness and the emotional effects which accompany it and know that the organic component is beyond the reach of the healers. But this distinction must be hard to make for the chronically ill themselves because this kind of distinction is difficult for anyone to make about themselves.

I have been trying to write this article since I finished my very first piece for The Skeptic (vol 16 no 1 spring 2003). I was going to start from my comment that "I had not known... how literal-minded people can be" and go on to argue, using my aikido experience as illustration, that some 'new age' beliefs are in fact category mistakes: confusions between levels of description where a metaphoric description, genuinely truthful when its metaphoric nature and limited application is consciously acknowledged, was mistaken for a description of a different, scientific, type - the title was to be Trouble with Metaphor. The piece as originally envisaged proved impossible to write because I gradually realised that all of us have 'trouble with metaphor' and handling different levels of explanation is difficult. I had also forgotten that a large chunk of 20th century philosophy was concerned with the nature of language and its slippery relationship to the world. This is a thorny area, but I don't suppose that will deter me from returning to it in the future, as its relevance to the sceptical project is seldom discussed.

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References

Carroll, Robert Todd. (2004) Charles Tart retrieved 16/7/04 from www.skepdic.com/tart.html

Channel 4 (2003) Derren Brown Mind Control 2nd programme of series, first broadcast 7/3/03 producer Andrew O'Connor

Channel 5 (2005) Pyschic Secrets Revealed 2nd programme of series, first broadcast Sept/Oct 2003 Objective Productions.

Collingbourne, Huw (2002) Body Magic: From the Samurai to the Georgia Magnet. Retrieved 16/5/04, from www.magicbunny.co.uk/tophat/issue9.pdf

Hyman, Ray (2003) How People Are Fooled By Ideomotor Action Retreived 9/8/04 from www.quackwatch.org/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/ideomotor.html. [This is a retitled version of The Mischief Making of Ideomotor Action]

Tart, Charles T (1986) Harmony, Self-Defense, and Subtle Energies: Aikido and the Concept of Ki. Retrieved 21/11/03, from www.paradigm-sys.com

Tohei, Koichi (1966) Aikido. The Co-ordination of Mind and Body for Self-Defence. London: Souvenir Press.

Tokitsu, Kenji (2002) Ki and the Way of the Martial Arts. Boston: Shambhala Publications.


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copyright 2005 Martin Parkinson, all rights reserved; moral rights asserted. Last updated 22 may 2005