Bullshido: Martial Arts Magic
Some call it Bullshido: Martial arts tricks like touchless attacks and the Touch of Death.
by Brian Dunning
January 19, 2010
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Bruce Lee, the seminal inspiration for bullshido
(Photo credit: Wikimedia)
In dojos all around the world, martial arts masters practice mysterious forms of attack. They can kill or render an attacker unconscious with a single touch, or sometimes, with no touch at all. The dim mak and kyusho jitsu are just some of the secret techniques reserved only for the masters, that are jealously guarded, and will not be taught to just anyone. Some call these techniques bullshido.
Bullshido is, obviously, a joke term which mocks made-up or exaggerated martial arts claims. Bullshido comes in many forms. The touch of death and the knockout without touching are just a few of the most popular, originally made famous by the stories telling this is how Bruce Lee was killed (in fact he died of cerebral edema after a dinner party, possibly due to a drug interaction). Bullshido also encompasses newly invented martial arts techniques by self-described masters who market themselves as the founders; schools claiming to be too exclusive to let just anyone in; and claims by instructors of having been taught by various great masters, the missing documentation of which is sometimes explained as being sacred or hidden away in a remote Asian temple.
The many various forms of bullshido have long been criticized by legitimate martial arts practitioners, and dismissed merely as marketing claims intended to attract students to a particular school where one of these supposed masters teaches. Bullshido practitioners shoot back that such naysayers are merely crying sour grapes because they have not yet learned the secret techniques, or achieved the special level.
The most famous of example of bullshido, which you've no doubt seen several times over the past couple of years, involves instructors who claim to have developed a technique of rendering an attacker senseless without actually touching him. The volunteer attackers are always the instructor's students in these videos. They'll charge at him one after the other, and as he punches or swipes at the air, they'll often dramatically fly back as if struck by a train. Every time an outsider volunteers to receive the touchless attack, the instructor either fails with some excuse, or refuses on the grounds that it would be too dangerous.
Harry Cameron is a martial arts instructor who goes by the moniker "The Human Stun Gun". Danielle Serino, a reporter on Fox Chicago's prime time news, decided to check out his claim on her segment Does It Work, Danielle? She watched him knock out some of his students by, basically, what amounted to little more than going up to them and shouting Boo! Danielle got suited up and volunteered to have the Human Stun Gun knock her out without touching her. He refused, saying it would be too dangerous for her, even though she went to the trouble and expense of having a team of paramedics standing by. However he was willing to actually punch her on the side of the head. Even that didn't have any real effect except to tick her off.
Danielle decided to give him the opportunity to prove his ability on someone he wouldn't be afraid of hurting, namely, a group of jiu-jitsu athletes from another gym who were not his students. His touchless attacks had no effect on any of them. Predictably, he had an explanation handy: Natural athletes like these students learn to "translate the energy" and are not affected by it. I guess Cameron's own students are not as enlightened. One red flag waving over Cameron's head is that he says he was instructed by George Dillman, often cited as one of the great pillars of bullshido.
There's also a famous YouTube video you may have seen where an elderly martial arts master, Kiai Master Ryukerin, does the same thing to a room full of his students, easily sending them all tumbling with waves of his hand. He offered $5000 to any modern Mixed Martial Arts athlete who could beat him. One guy took him up on it, and in front of Japanese TV cameras, casually beat the poor old guy to a pulp. It's actually a little sad, and hard to watch. Did Ryukerin actually believe that he had this power? Was it a mass delusion shared between him and his students, or was it all part of the show, and Ryukerin hoped that his actual martial arts skills would defeat the MMA guy? The only thing we know for sure is that his touchless attack failed.
But history, especially recent history, is full of people who claim to have this ability, and are happy to demonstrate it so long as the conditions are under their own control. A Russian martial art called Systema SpetsNaz claims the same touchless knockout, as do most others. An American who called himself Count Dante was one of the prototypical bullshido practitioners, and spawned an entire subculture through ads in the back of comic books offering the "World's Deadliest Fighting Secrets".
The touchless attack is universally claimed to work by disrupting the victim's qi. Qi is a hypothetical energy field, the body's life force, which flows through hypothetical channels called meridians and was first postulated in prescientific ancient times to explain why people are alive and inanimate objects are not. Qi has no describable or detectable properties, and the only evidence that it might exist is the anecdotal claims of believers who say they can sense it. Yet even they cannot describe it, and cannot detect it under controlled conditions. So while we can't state that qi does not exist, we can state that its existence has not been demonstrated.
So if we can't prove that a touchless attack is real, what about the dim mak, the so-called "touch of death"? There are two varieties of this. The first is a single sharp blow, and the second is a simple touch or series of touches, as often dramatized in movies.
The single sharp blow is well established to be real, and I'm not even talking about things like a piano falling on you. People can absolutely be killed with a single blow. It's rare and it requires just the right circumstances, but it happens. One way is commotio cordis, which is a blunt force blow to the chest which need not be severe enough to cause any physiological damage; but if it happens just right it can stop the heart. It's usually seen with baseballs, hockey pucks, bullet strikes to bulletproof vests, or even martial arts blows. No bullshido here: Punch someone in the heart just right and you can actually kill them.
The carotid artery in your neck is another vulnerable spot, but it requires damage to the artery that causes a stroke. There are many hoax videos on the Internet showing a master knocking out a student with a quick, light chop to the side of the neck. These are sometimes rationalized with the claim that even such an extremely brief interruption to the blood flow to the brain produces unconsciousness. This is false. If it were true, you could do it to yourself. Due to the potential for lethal damage to the artery walls, I don't recommend experimentation.
In boxing they speak of punching someone on the temple as "the button": Hit someone just so, on the button, for an immediate knockout. This is simply a concussion caused by a sudden shock to the head, crushing the brain against the inside of the skull. Contrary to popular belief, the temple is no better or worse a target for concussion than any other point on the skull (except the jaw, which can move and thus absorbs part of the energy of the blow). Aside from concussion, the temple is a dangerous place to be struck, but not because there are any special nerves there. The skull at that point is quite thin and fragile, and right under it is the middle meningeal artery. If it's ruptured, the hemorrhaging is very dangerous, and quite likely fatal. No touch or blow to the temple that does not break the skull or cause a concussion is likely to be especially harmful.
The ability to disable, paralyze, kill, or render a person unconscious with touches or a series of touches to special nerve points on the body, often referred to as acupuncture or acupressure points, is also completely fictitious. Nerves do not serve this function. As has been proven time and time again in clinical trials, acupuncture using traditional acupuncture points produces results no better than random points on the body. By any reasonable analysis, this means acupuncture points, as they are traditionally defined, do not exist. There is nothing special or unusual about the nerves or other anatomical features at so-called acupuncture points, and no clinical effect can be demonstrated by using them. Thus, by extension, any martial arts attack that claims acupuncture points as its foundation is based on a false premise.
There are certainly spots on the human body that are vulnerable to injury or that produce sharp pain if struck. The family jewels are one obvious such place. The nose is another. There are various techniques for damaging knee or elbow ligaments with relatively little effort. Various spots on the body produce involuntary reflexes if struck properly, making it possible to force the victim to release a grip or move their body in a certain way. But there's nothing magical about any of these, and they don't depend on the existence of a magical energy field. Nearly all martial arts call such places on the body as these "pressure points". But many martial arts expand the use of this term to include mythical points along qi meridians. So while some pressure points are real, others are hypothetical. An experienced bullshido practitioner can certainly give me a series of light blows, even touches, and probably leave me in great pain, possibly even disabled to some degree. He's going to have to actually injure me to do so. What he can't do in reality is what you see in the YouTube videos with his students: Make a series of touches where each, individually, produces no injury; but in conjunction they constitute a disabling attack through manipulation of qi. This is the heart of bullshido.
Understand and appreciate what martial arts really are and what they can really do. There is science behind why it works; unfortunately it's the prescientific pseudoscientific explanations that are most often repeated. Be aware that martial arts' ancient traditions make them rife with pseudoscience; a fact that continues to be exploited by con artists and clever marketers looking to separate you from your money.
By Brian Dunning
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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Bullshido: Martial Arts Magic." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
19 Jan 2010. Web.
20 Feb 2017. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4189>
References & Further Reading
Brett, K. The Way of the Martial Artist. Stafford: Donohue Group, Inc., 2008. 75-76.
Gengenbach, M., Hyde, T. Conservative Management of Sports Injuries. Sudbury: Jones & Bartlett Learning, 2007. 313-316.
Kelly, M. "Fact or Fiction: Medical Science Examines Dim Mak and its Infamous Death Touch." Black Belt. 21 Sep. 2002, Volume 40, Number 9: 79-82.
Maron, B., Gohman, T., Kyle, S., Estes M., Link, M. "Clinical Profile and Spectrum of Commotio Cordis." Journal of the American Medical Association. 6 Mar. 2002, Volume 287, Number 9: 1142-1146.
Serino, Danielle. "'The Human Stun Gun' Investigation." WFLD. Fox Television Stations, Inc., 4 Mar. 2006. Web. 19 Jan. 2010. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pdrzBL2dHMI>
Thomas, T. Bruce Lee, Fighting Spirit: A Biography. San Antonio: Frog Books, 1994. 224-225.
Thompson, P. Exercise and Sports Cardiology. New York: McGraw-Hill Professional, 2001. 249-252.
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