Fighting, Aggression, and the Brain

Fighting, Aggression, and the Brain


Many neurological studies of boxers seem to have focused on sustained damage to the brain after a fighter has taken numerous hits to the head. While these studies are of great of significance, I think an equally important study would seek to determine how well fighters can control aggressive impulses. Controlling aggression is of extreme importance, and many styles attempt to discipline their fighters with this very tenant, after all, if aggression is not tempered in a fight with a worthy opponent, it puts the fighter at a disadvantage.

A person’s behavioral repertoire is engrained in their procedural memory, and so whether a person has spent years riding a bike, skiing, skateboarding or spelunking, the gradual fine-tuning of the actions that lead to an increased skill level (this is no doubt limited to the person’s biology) is also responsible for corresponding and subtle neurological changes. If a fighter has had to practice self-control, especially in the face of a fight, it is hard to imagine the brain not neurologically incorporating this into memory; many fighters have realized this in the sense that their style “becomes” them. The more you drill a particular response in the face of a particular stimulus, the more likely you are to elicit that response in the face of future occurrences of the same stimulus.

Fighting isn’t just a sequence of elicited responses, however. Fighters are continually strategizing and planning their moves. This necessitates an increased amount of activity in the frontal lobes, but begs the question, how much of controlling aggression is strategy? Is simply picking the right moment to throw a punch the same as controlling aggression, or is controlling aggression more about keeping rage and frustration in check? How wide is the gap between a violent outburst and a sparring session? Could this be the difference between reactive and instrumental systems?

These are the kinds of questions I would like to explore.

2 thoughts on “Fighting, Aggression, and the Brain

  1. Ettina

    I suggest you study Eastern martial arts (karate, Judo, tai kwon do, kung fu, etc) rather than boxing, because those martial arts forbid blows to the head in combat tournaments, removing the confound of repeated concussion.

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  2. Jack Pemment Post author

    Thanks for your comment, Ettina. My current project is looking at Eastern martial arts and stress control, but I must admit that I do have a soft spot for boxing. It is true that you have to be careful with the effects of repeated concussions, but boxing can be far more aggressive than many martial arts (with the exception of MMA). I want to know what being “aggressive” for years practicing a fighting style does to the brain.
    Are you a martial artist or a researcher?

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