24 hours after my first “Historical European Martial Art” class I found myself jogging in the forest and improvising an axe from two sticks and some vines. Read on for some thoughts about how playing with violence is good for the brain.
~Warning this post contains nudity~
The moment I entered the sports center I notice some statistical variations. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a room with so many men with long hair. Not surprisingly beards were also in fashion.
After completing some rigorous repeated exercises for the warm up, I was taken to the side with 2 other new people to get basic instruction. Most importantly we were taught how not to hurt any players including myself. “Keep the shield below chin level and never deflect a sword attack upwards,” I was told. In western countries, when you play with real steal weapons safety needs to be taken seriously. With all these lawsuits and over protective governments, one death might be enough to make this fun activity illegal.
My instructor was impressed with my zeal yet recommended that I don’t rush into attacking. “Stay more defensive and wait,” he said. But where is the fun in that? My body has learnt the fear of getting punched in the head or kicked in the gut but is seemed to have not yet learnt the fear of rushing into pointy objects so all too many spares and swords kept encountering my body. It wasn’t very pleasant but didn’t leave any marks. It has been a long time since I enjoyed playing with violence so much. This is the only style I know of that practices fighting in a “group vs group setting”, side by side, protecting each other, becoming a larger organism. This brought about a very primal sense of belonging to a bigger group. All team sports might be a sublimation of this.
Let’s talk about brains for a bit
I would like you to imagine them as slot machines. Brains always predict the future and the future they predict is basically a type of statistical gamble choosing from these possible options, like the rotating wheel of a slot machine. Just as the 3 bars of a slot machine are categorized as either a win or a loss, each future the brain predicts probably comes with some type of ‘cost’ function labeling how good or bad that future is for us.
A newborn baby resembles a slot machine with only a few different images. Let’s say just the 777 and the cherry, no diamonds or bells or cash. As we grow our slot machine gets more and more images, by interacting with the environment. Every time the future we predict isn’t exactly what happens new images will be created to allow for better prediction. We also seem to copy many images from other slot machines around us. But will these new images turn into a win or a loss? At the very beginning that only depends on the context and timing from the environment. For instance an image followed by food will be categorized as a win while an image followed by an electric shock will be a loss. This is obviously an over simplifications but it’s a useful analogy. The more images the slot machine categorizes as wins the more likely it is to land on wins. The more good experiences we have the more likely we are to be ‘optimistic’ and predict a good future.
That’s why the notion of play is so important as I explained previously. Playing allows kids to experiment and increases the chances for categorizing things as wins. Not necessary wins over others, it doesn’t have to be a 0 sum game where if someone wins the other loses. It just has to be a good learning experience, where we are allowed to make mistakes and the brains predictions don’t have to narrow down too much.
The Feminist Battles.
For whatever reasons, in most cultures being born with a vagina usually meant not being allowed to play with violence. Vikings are thought to be a type of exception. It’s hard to know exactly how many warriors had vaginas but the fact is that their stories and myths along with the artwork and burial sites indicate that it was part of their society. I too am a sort of exception of this age, one of the privileged few in these modern times who did get to play with violence in a safe and empowering setting and honestly it’s probably the main thing that has kept me relatively sane and functional.
On the previous weekend I went to the F-Word, a feminist festival. I arrived early and volunteered to help with the setup including helping an amazonian blacksmith create an inspiring mobile metal workshop. However, not everything sat so well with me, especially at the party at night where I felt a strange sextual opression in the air. It was really hot and all I was wearing was a warm jumper. In festivals like Burning Man I wouldn’t have had to think twice about taking my shirt off and being topless, but here It felt like my boobs represented all these bigger issues. Feminism has always been a complex label for me and I don’t like labels in general. I do understand that in big battles soldiers have to fight under a banner that allows them to unite and not accidently kill each other on the battlefield. And this is how I view feminism. A banner needed in order to identify waring factors. But when it comes to ideas about sex I often find myself standing on the minority side battling against most feminists for the freedom to do whatever I want with my vagina.
I think that for so many, sexuality has been tainted with pain and abuse that anything that has to do with sex might be categorized as a potential ‘loss’. I will do my best not to judge those that have been hurt but I won’t let their fear take away my freedom. All I can do is offer a different possibility, as given by my slot machine that was built by playing with violence, a glimpse at my brain that is able to predict ‘wins’ even under very extreme cases and a look at my very privileged vagina for which sex is just another simple fun activity, untainted by patriarchy or fear. Yes, I am very aware of my privileges but I would much rather share them instead of give them up and isn’t that what a healthy community should be about?