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The Neuroscience Behind Reality-Based Self-Defense Part 1

Hello everyone, and welcome to my blog, The Neuroscience Behind Reality-Based Self-Defense, here on the IMPACT Your Life blog. In this post, I want to share the discoveries that I’ve come across about neurobiology that affect how we address personal safety. The information I present here is based on information I’ve learned from a variety of professionals (who I will credit each time I mention their work), my own observations as a clinician and self-defense instructor, and my own experiences as a martial artist and martial combatant. I am not a doctor in neuroscience, nor do I pretend to be any sort of medical professional. By no means is anything I share all-encompassing or a reflection of the organizations of which I’m a part. I am just sharing the information that I’ve discovered through training, as well as personal reviews of existing research. There will be times I may discuss anxiety-provoking material, so please take the necessary means to properly address any distress that comes up for you. My intent is to share my knowledge and add to the body of work that others before me have already done. With that, I hope you enjoy what I have to offer. This first installment will cover the history of how IMPACT SoCal started addressing neurobiology.

IMPACT SoCal first started looking at neurobiology in the early ‘00s when trying to solve the problem of why students were not stepping in well for a heel palm and unable to perform a block as they did so. Former IMPACT SoCal Padded Instructor Perry Hauck noticed that students were literally unable to perform well under stress no matter how much we adjusted the teaching in non-scenario drills.

He observed that under a certain amount of stress the students will behave in a protective manner no matter how much they practiced, or have taken a class before. He also observed that the more complex the physical technique and the more they had to try to recall in verbal scenarios, the greater the student response time was for the level of simulated threat we presented them.

After reviewing the work of reality-based self-defense instructors Jim Wagner, Tony Blauer, Richard Dimitri, Bruce Siddle, and author David Grossman, Perry brought to our attention how the startle/flinch response of human beings influenced important aspects of what we taught, how we taught, and our expectations from students. Reality-based self-defense training is a broad category that describes a type of self-defense training where you put the participants in scenarios that they may most likely experience in their lives. ESD, IMPACT SoCal, IMPACT Colorado, and IMPACT Global are organizations that teach this type of training. I will address why reality-based self-defense training is important in later blogs.

After looking at and experimenting with the information Perry brought to us, we re-organized and simplified the teaching of our physical and verbal interventions to concepts as opposed to using specific techniques for specific situations so that there was more breadth understanding and accessibility of how to effectively defend oneself.

We discovered that there were fewer injuries, better skill acquisition, and better recall when exposed to more realistic and dynamic levels of stress, and reports of feeling more competent and confident due to the simplicity of what they were learning.

Since then, we have been using that information to look at how we can improve as instructors, improve training for future instructors, and improve skill retention after one takes a class or even a workshop.

This is partially where this blog comes in. In the next installments I’m going to discuss topics such as the very basics of neurobiology as it pertains to self-defense training, the distinctions between martial arts and self-defense training and why it is important to know, and how one’s training can contribute to long-term success in one’s life.

My goal is to add more information to the skills you already have so that you can further enhance the lessons you have learned in your journey of empowerment thus far.

I hope you enjoyed the information! Please feel free to contact me with any questions, comments, corrections, words of derision, or praise. All are welcome. You can contact me at:

Strength and honor,


Michael Penafiel is a Senior Instructor/Instructor Trainer with IMPACT Southern California and IMPACT Global. On top of the 23 years he’s worked as a padded instructor, he fought professionally in MMA events, is a 3rd-degree black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, a full Dog Brother participating in weapons-based combat events, a huge fan of all things pertaining to neurology and the brain as it pertains to improving behavior and performance, and is a practicing Licensed Marriage and Family therapist working with children, adolescents, and adults. He enjoys video games, music, art, sushi, and pie.

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