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What learning to fight affects your brain and your body

Two years ago I fought in a cage with another human in a cage, which could best be described as a fit for the madness of the early Middle Ages.

My reasons were simple: I wanted a new life. A life free from the thousand and one boundaries and boundaries and definitions that I have created over the last 40 years. All my crushing and stifling ideas of me – that I am a decadent person who is not interested in the health of my body. Or that I was a pacifist without losing the desire for harm in me, or a coward whose avoidance of physical confrontation was in fact proof of his refinement. I was tired of being a decadent and a pacifist, devoting myself exclusively to physical pleasure and irony, to drinking and writing and to the life of the spirit. I was filled and pampered and free of pain and strife and the need to protect myself or risk anything. Life was bliss and I was bored with tears.

As announced, learning to fight provided me with all the transformation I ever wanted. First, there was the transformation of my body, which brought me to the mirror on more nights than I can remember. I looked at my once insignificant shoulders, which had turned and tensed, curved and plunged into thick lines between my biceps and triceps. My chest muscles shot up in a "w" from the bottom of my chest to my armpits. My chest, suddenly wide and imposing, sat on a flat stomach, on which, in certain lights and moods, I swore I could see my abdominal muscles.

There have also been changes in my relationship to physical exertion and fatigue, my ability to discipline and self-control, and my desire for exercise and effort. The biggest transformation, however, was that I could tolerate and even enjoy pain caused by violence, not let myself be crouched or run, but the blows to the face and kicks on the side and the terrible chokes I encountered during my numerous sparring endured, welcomed meetings. I wanted to overcome my lifelong fear of the fight. Like countless fighters in front of me, I changed the way my brain reacted to the training of terror, distorting and dampening its basic survival instincts in the name of rebirth.

There are two areas of the human brain that are called when there is a potential danger: the old amygdala, which deals with primitive processes such as fear and aggression, and the much younger prefrontal cortex associated with our higher functions Field, such as reasoning and decision-making, says Michael Drew, an associate professor in the Department of Neuroscience at the University of Texas at Austin. In case of a potential threat, the amygdala sends messages to the cortex, which then analyzes them to determine their nature and severity.

When these two systems realize that the danger is real, the brain will focus all of its body's resources on combat, flood the bloodstream with adrenaline, make the heart beat faster to pump blood faster, release pain relieving chemicals and the body prepare whole organism to protect itself. A balance between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex is required to keep the host alive and free of unnecessary panic, so that he can recognize fear without being flooded.

The thing is, the prefrontal cortex is painfully slow. By the time the reasonable part of the brain realizes that it is in danger, the amygdala has already triggered automatic reactions in the body, and we find that we are "instinctively" responsive to a threat and unaware, says Drew. In order for the human body to react more rationally and in a more coordinated manner to situations of high stress ̵

1; such as in an amateur cage fight in Long Island – motor routines have to be deeply rooted through repetition and shift the brain's response to certain species out of fear. Repeated enough, these skills are rooted in the brain, and knowledge and skills become subconscious: a new instinct.

This is one reason soldiers, tightrope walkers, and fighters train the same way they do. It's not just about learning techniques, but about getting used to the conditions of high stress and anxiety situations, overriding their primal instincts in a panic of new moves. When the brain and the body are exposed to a certain fear without harm, says Drew, the prefrontal cortex can learn to override the amygdala and its primal panic when real danger comes.

So my wish for a new life was realized, one synapse after another. All it took was to eliminate all my self-preservation instincts through repeated self-destruction. Everything was right in the world.

But as my battle approached, I began to worry about another type of transformation, something darker and more sinister than the face of old fears or the onset of visible abdominal muscles. Terrible questions crowded into my head and consumed me when I walked on the treadmill or hit the heavy rucksack: Did I hurt someone? Did I actually want that hurt somebody? Deep inside me was I pining to hurt somebody? Was there real violence in me? Had all the civilized decades been waiting to come out? And if so, what would happen when it finally happened? After 40 frustrated years would something start to stir up in my mind and not be carried forward? Was I risking far beyond the physical damage by entering this cage? Was my soul in danger? What if I became a monster? And what if I liked it?

Norman Mailer once wrote that the fight "arouses two of the deepest fears we contain. There is not only the fear of injury, which is more than concede to more men, but also the opposite panic of hurting others. "But there is a third fear that Mailer did not mention, perhaps the worst of all: the horror of discovering during a fight that you enjoy hurting others, which has worried me: After all the peaceful, passive ones For years, I've found that I even felt like causing pain. "My new fear was no longer that I ran away from the violence, but that I would revel in it I would thrive on .

This is the dark side of self-improvement and transformation, this purely American quest for a better, purer and more perfect version of ourselves: to discover that the "new ego" that you dreamed of is indeed a terrible animal, a cruel and sinister agent is Hyde to your civilized Jekyll.

That may sound like a purely poetic co-act, but the danger is real, neurological The distortion of the soul can actually manifest itself in the brain. As part of its response to high-stress situations, the body releases the steroid hormone cortisol into the blood, which transports it throughout the body and across the blood-brain barrier, Drew says. Of the receptors in the brain on which cortisol acts, one increases the plasticity, the other affects them. In other words, when a person is exposed to chronic stress, some areas of the brain can actually stretch and grow.

Take the old amygdala. "In response to the presence of excessive cortisol, amygdaloid neurons can branch and form more synapses," says Drew, "thereby improving the brain's ability to fight anxiety and aggression as well as other instinctive, defensive, and violent reactions." So if it can be said that fighters live in an eternal combat or flight state, a kind of low-grade chronic stress, it is possible that they will forever grow that original, unregulated, aggressive and anxiety-controlled region of the brain we share with the lowest animals of the jungle.

Unlike other training routines, this means that fighting has the challenge of discovering parts of yourself that may better go undetected – and never bury the fear they once aroused. A new life, a new you.

This story was adapted from Josh Rosenblatt's upcoming book "Why We Fight: A Man's Search for the Meaning of the Ring", published on January 15.

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