“Be true to the thought of the moment and avoid distraction. Other than continuing to exert yourself, enter into nothing else, but go to the extent of living single thought by single thought.”
— Tsunetomo Yamamoto, “Hagakure” (circa 1710)
Hyogo resident Isao Machii is an iaido master — a specialist in the art of drawing a blade from its scabbard.
In feudal Japan, dueling was ritualized and two samurai would typically face each other with their swords sheathed at their sides and bow before fighting. Think of Clint Eastwood facing off against some adversary in a spaghetti Western, except with a little more refinement. Just as a gunslinger’s ability to draw a pistol quickly was key to determining the outcome of a duel, so it was with swords.
The samurai elevated the practice of dueling to an art form. Iaido is about being supremely aware of your surroundings, psychologically primed for action, and inhabiting the “now.” It is about purity of motion, precision and fluidity. In a nutshell, it is “moving Zen.”
Machii can move with incredible speed. I first saw him on YouTube facing a pitching machine that was cranked up faster than usual. He stands, hand on the hilt of his sword, as a baseball is pitched at him at more than 160 kilometers per hour. Before you know it, Machii has drawn his blade and sliced the ball in two.
There’s another video of Machii facing someone firing a BB gun at him. The pellet is moving toward him at 350 kilometers per hour, but he is still able to draw his sword and strike it.
Machii has been hailed as a samurai legend and a real-life manga superhero. He seems to have what amounts to a sixth sense for divining the path of a moving object and can react much faster than a normal person.
In cognitive psychology, reaction time is used to measure mental chronometry. In its simplest form this refers to the processing time of cognitive operations, or, in other words, the time between a signal (eg. the firing of a gun) and the reaction elicited in response to the signal.
Different kinds of stimuli will elicit different reaction times. Despite the fact that light travels faster than sound, people typically react faster to sound than they do to light because the brain takes longer to process the complexities of visual stimuli.
People vary in their reaction times, although young people typcially react faster than the elderly.
Interestingly, a person’s reaction time also correlates with their IQ. There’s a piece of equipment in psychology called the Jenson box that is used to measure reactions and intelligence. The box features eight buttons and eight associated lights. Lights come on and you have to press the appropriate button next to the light.
Experiments with the Jenson box have shown that smarter people appear to react faster. Although researchers don’t know exactly why this is the case, people with faster reaction times might be able to process information more quickly.
However, physical limitations put a cap on the speed at which neurotransmitters can relay information to the brain. Has Machii, through iaido training, reached this limit?
The key neurotransmitter that mediates reaction time is dopamine, which may seem odd to those who know it as the so-called cuddle chemical that controls reward and pleasure in the brain.
Krystal Parker at the University of Iowa’s Department of Neurology studies the brain pathway that dopamine uses. The key region is the ventral tegmental area, a place rich in dopamine neurons, and Parker has found that improvements in reaction time in people with Parkinson’s disease is correlated with greater activity in this region.
Researchers know that drugs such as amphetamine can reduce reaction time, while drugs that block dopamine have the opposite effect.
This suggests that people such as Machii perhaps possess genes that optimize the pathways in the ventral tegmental region.
Researchers know that the speed a person can process information declines rather sharply from their mid-20s. At 43 years old, Machii currently holds several Guinness World Records for his swordsmanship but I wonder if he’ll ever be able to win anymore. I, for one, certainly hope so.
Rowan Hooper is the news editor of New Scientist magazine. The second volume of Natural Selections columns translated into Japanese is published by Shinchosha. The title is “Hito wa Ima mo Shinka Shiteru” (“The Evolving Human”). Follow Rowan on Twitter @rowhoop.