Part 3 of The Art of Violence Series
Read Part 1, Mirror Neurons and Human Violence, here
and Part 2, The Blood-Ritual Spectrum, here

I’ve used the blood-ritual spectrum to demonstrate that combat rituals allow the contestants to balance the blood debt. On one end of the spectrum is the blood feud, which gets the job done fast with a high risk of violent contagion. At the other end is the choreographed war dance, which is a slow burn but with almost no risk of violent contagion.

That article was primarily concerned with the participants in combat ritual. Participation in ritual has one clear benefit aside from balancing the blood debt: it was a release valve for built-up, violent intents, which if bottled up could easily explode in violent contagion.

This article covers an element that all combat rituals have in common: spectators. Spectators weren’t just there for their own entertainment, and they weren’t just ticket sales for the promoters. Spectators form an integral part of the combat ritual equation: their presence is also critical to keeping violent contagion in check.

The Violent Spectators

We can simulate this scenario in a few ways. Let’s go back in time and imagine a peaceful tribe on one side of a large canyon. On the other side is a gang of cannibals. The gap prevents the cannibals from invading the peaceful tribe. For the sake of argument, the peaceful tribe can’t escape. So once the cannibals build a bridge, they’ll enjoy the human buffet waiting on the other side.

The peaceful tribe watches the cannibal gang sharpen their teeth and hone their axes all day. Their peaceful mirror neurons are slowly inundated with the cannibals’ intentions to eat them. Cannibalistic notions will begin invading their once-peaceful thoughts. One goes crazy and stabs his brother with a sharp stick. A cousin takes revenge for the stabbing. A small feud erupts. At this rate, the peaceful tribe will kill itself off before the cannibals can even finish the bridge. What can they do?

The peaceful tribe, like any society, still has to balance its blood debt. It does this while weighing the risks of violent contagion. As mentioned previously, blood feuds don’t mix well with neighbors. In an open system like this, the stress of an impending cannibal invasion is too much kindling for the fire.

Peter Gibbons in Office Space

Before we propose a solution, we need to understand the mechanics of what’s happening in the peaceful tribe members’ mirror neuron systems. We can use the modern example of Office Space. Peter is an office worker. His overbearing boss Lumbergh and annoying coworkers get on his nerves. They bombard his mirror neuron systems with malicious intentions. Peter is constantly inundated by his job, just like the peaceful tribe is inundated by the cannibals.

If this were medieval Iceland, Peter could kill Lumbergh and rule Initech. If it were the Old West, he could challenge Lumbergh to a gun duel, or maybe a fist fight. Even a quick Jujitsu match could settle things quickly. But the corporate world of post-1994 doesn’t allow for these modes of resolution.

Fight Club posits an interesting resolution for inundation – get together on Friday nights and do fist fights (level 3 on the blood-ritual spectrum). Corporate boxing gyms are all over America for this reason. The physical release of the intent loads can clear the air for office workers and allow them to keep working. If boxing isn’t an option, they can run, lift weights, or do something physical that, at least partially, targets these problematic intent loads.

But let’s say Peter didn’t do anything, or he can’t do anything. Or he didn’t have time. What happens to all the intents that he loads into his brain? His relationship is on the brink, and he’s miserable. He might snap and stab someone. We have the same situation as our cannibal invasion: intents are loaded, they’re boiling over, and our subjects can’t physically do anything. Peter goes to a hypnotist, but that’s movie logic and won’t work for us. We need a resolution to the problem of inundation without action.

Inundation – Intents Kept In a (Volatile) Potential State

In Mirrors in the Brain Rizzolatti theorized that when we observe an object that requires some kind of action, such as a coffee cup, the PMVr (or “F5”) region of our brain builds a simulation of the action. This is stored as a potential motor action. The simulation helps us to process exactly how to pick up the coffee cup, which then allows us to act. Intents are loaded and then released by action.

Once we have discovered how to conjugate the different kinds of motor acts with specific visual aspects relative to objects, which therefore become object affordances, our motor system will be able to perform all the transformations necessary to carry out any act, including that of picking up our cup of coffee.

… Many objects, including our coffee cup, have more than one affordance. It follows that when we see these objects, more than one set of neural AIP populations will be triggered, each of which will code a specific affordance. It is likely that these action proposals will be sent to F5, sparking off what can be defined as potential motor acts. Now, the choice of how to act will not depend only on the intrinsic properties of the object in question (its shape, size, and orientation), but also on what we intent to do with it, on its functions, etc. Going back to our coffee cup once more, we will grasp it in different ways depending on whether we are picking it up to drink from it, to rinse it, or simply to move it from one place to another. Moreover, our grip on the cup varies according to the circumstances, whether we are afraid of burning our fingers, or the cup is surrounded by other objects; it will also be influenced by our customs, habits, and our inclination to adhere to certain social rules and so on.

Rizzolatti, Mirrors In The Brain, (pp. 35-36)

When we do not act on the potential motor act, the intention is retained in a potential stage.

When an act is performed, the discharge of the neuron represents the activation of a motor command, such as ‘pick this up with a precision grip’, but what happens when there is no action involved, just observation? If the neuron also discharges in the same way in this condition, this discharge should convey an identical message to that sent when the animal moves, but which instead of determining an overt action, remains at the potential stage. This happens automatically whenever the monkey looks at a given type of object. … [W]e are interested here in the functions to be ascribed to the vocabulary of motor acts even when there is no explicit intention to act.

Rizzolatti, Mirrors In The Brain, pp. 47-48

Interestingly, children with Autism Spectrum Disorder can’t seem to ignore the inundation of objects and will constantly act on these stored intentions. Studying Autism as it relates to the mirror neuron system might reveal some interesting clues. This will be covered in a later article.

This same function of storing potential motor action helps us comprehend the intentions of others performing an action. The potential motor action builds a simulation within our own brains of what the other person is trying to do.

The ‘act on the spectator’s part’ is a potential motor act, determined by the activation of the mirror neurons that code sensory information in motor terms thus enabling the ‘reciprocity’ of acts and intentions that is at the root of our ability to immediately understand what we see others doing. … As soon as we see someone doing something, either a single act or a chain of acts, his movements take on immediate meaning for us, whether he likes it or not [and whether we like it or not]. … The mirror neuron system and the selectivity of the responses of the neurons that compose it, produce a shared space of action, within which each act and chain of acts, whether ours or ‘theirs’, are immediately registered and understood without the need of any explicit or deliberate ‘cognitive operation’.

Rizzolatti, Mirrors In The Brain, p. 131
Office Space

These potential intents, if not acted upon, are what cause us to be “bogged down” or inundated. Inundation is a huge load on our mirror neuron systems, begging us to do something. Of course, doing something about them would get us fired. We can’t all be gangstas.

The Cathartic War Dance

Back at the impending cannibal holocaust, our peaceful tribe needs to resolve the inundation from their cannibal neighbors, without sparking violent contagion within the tribe. A chieftain comes forward, who understands the whole situation. Understanding the situation requires decoding the simulation going on in the mirror neurons of his tribe. In our case, the intent load looks something like this:

  • Cannibals want to eat us
  • We can’t stop them
  • Feuds are erupting from our inundation

The chieftain then makes a blueprint of a counter-simulation which, in the minds of the peaceful tribespeople, could resolve the threat of the cannibal holocaust. This data would be:

  • Our tribe unites
  • We use weapons to beat the cannibals
  • Peace is restored

The chieftain gathers some of his warriors. They’re a little out of shape, so he paints some six-packs on them and makes them look hard. He choreographs a dance with them, a simulation of a defense against a cannibal holocaust. He integrates some aspects specific to their tribe like the red color of the soil and some local bird quills. The chieftain consults with the priests, integrating lore and storytelling into the routine.


War Dance – Thomas L. McKenney & James Hall, History of the Indian tribes of North America, London 1837 (vol. I, frontispiece)

The chieftain gathers the tribe together and presents The War Dance. The people are enchanted as their warriors battle and tell stories. At the end is an animal sacrifice, which brings a symbolic peace on the whole assembly. The war dance rallies the troops against the inevitable cannibal attack, but it also serves to calm down the audience. It clarifies the “we” against “them cannibals”.

God of War

Like the war dance, in any story we are introduced to the main character of the drama, whom we relate to in some way. Typical stories have a “save the cat” moment where our mirror neuron systems can click with the protagonist. His desires become our desires, his enemies our enemies, his struggle our struggle, and his catharsis our catharsis. His entire drama is simulated within our mirror neuron system, which becomes our internal reality for the length of the drama. If our intent load doesn’t click with his, we can’t sync up with his story, so we’ll pick a different drama. Netflix has 160 TV shows as of writing this post, so people have no shortage of dramatic options to choose from. Corporate bosses like Lumbergh might connect with a show about a politician, a laborer will connect with a show about a coal-miner in post-Edwardian England, etc.

No matter what intents we’re loaded with throughout the day, there is a drama out there, a war dance, that we can sync with. Our protagonist will vanquish the villain, offloading her intents through the resolution of, say, a final sword fight. This has the effect of unhitching the same intents that we’ve been inundated with up until that point. The death of the villain simulates the intent offloading, and we’re suddenly freed from the inundation.

(Sidenote: This is the same method used in possession and exorcism rituals. I’ll write more in depth on this subject in a later post. But essentially, the shaman/Netflix syncs with our MNS and uses various sacred objects/imagery to help us expel foreign intent loads. The more we study our ancestors, the more we realize that we haven’t changed.)

The removal of these loaded intents gives new meaning to the Greek word catharsis. The “purification”, “cleansing”, and “clarification” of catharsis makes a lot more sense now. Netflix and the war dance have this very cathartic effect on the spectator: the shedding of unwanted intent loads so that we don’t kill each other.

The Formal Era of the War Dance

Going back to our impending cannibal holocaust, the cathartic war dance (or any media that we watch for its cleansing properties, and not for research) keeps the peaceful tribe from killing itself off. It’s on the cleanest end of the Blood-Ritual Spectrum, where violence is codified and not actually violent toward anybody, so we could call this period a formal era. The goal is to keep violent contagion to an absolute minimum.

Formal eras don’t necessarily require an impending, external crisis. If we look at war dances like the WWE, Wushu, and Pakistani Kabbadi, these aren’t due to the threat of invading cannibals. However, highly coded forms of combat always stem from a strict taboo against violence, whose roots might be in the distant past. China’s reverence for traditional martial arts comes from millennia of peasant revolts and military conquest, which come with a host of coded taboos (even taboos against violence while eating). These traditional institutions bear the mark of history and are worth preserving for their weapons alone.

If we introduce an updated ritual combat system like MMA, there’s no reason to destroy the older, formal combat institution. Sometimes they even mix in interesting ways. Just don’t let them mix in the wrong way, or the state will intervene in the name of preserving this once-critical institution. Because you never know when you’ll need it again.

In the case of our peaceful tribe, formal violence is actually quite an accomplishment. Putting boundary lines around choreographed combat requires a long continuity of cultural signs, which is only possible if the tribe has escaped destruction from within and without.

But what happens when we do descend into a crisis?

When Cannibals Attack, We Eat Them – Plummeting to the Crisis Era

The tribe was too distracted watching the war dance and the cannibals built their bridge and attacked. The tribe attempts to fight, but their rusty weapons fail them, and they’re not in fighting shape. They take massive casualties. The cannibals finally devour the chieftain and secure their dominance. The tribe are caged and will be eaten over time, not necessarily for food, but more as a flex. Plus, that old fickle sun god seems to like it when they eat people.

The peaceful tribe’s collective mirror neurons have been inundated for months, maybe years, by the cannibals. They never acted on these loaded intentions to preemptively strike and stave off the attack, so now they’re lunch. We can look to history to see how dire the situation is for our peaceful tribe.

So now, perhaps without thinking, and with no other options, a handful of the peaceful tribe members gang up on the prison guard and eat him in front of some other cannibals. They begin to act like cannibals themselves, going on a rampage against the invaders. The once-peaceful tribe totally lets loose in the interest of self-preservation. Some of them even seem to enjoy this moment of animal-like brutality. The cannibals are then vanquished. They cross the bridge and murder all the cannibals’ family members too, just to be sure they don’t come back in a generation to settle the blood debt.

The tribe has rid themselves of the cannibals, but they have a new problem: now they’re cannibals. The dividing line between the animalistic cannibals and the high-minded tribe has been totally erased. The hero has become the villain, the villain the hero. There’s no right or wrong. This “undifferentiation” is the crisis, when critical differences and categories are lost. In this case, the difference between “human life” and “food” has vaporized.

In the wake of the crisis, the tribal mirror neuron network just looks like a bunch of cannibals. The network says, “Eating humans brings peace.” They’ve officially gone there. “Cannibalism” is now associated with “peace and victory” in the mirror neuron network! Uh oh! They want to go back to what were before, but whenever a threat crops up, they go to ritual cannibalism. It keeps the peace, but things aren’t the same anymore.

The elders come together and realize, in the interest of self-preservation, that they can’t just keep eating people. There at least has to be a sunset on cannibalism, because nobody wants to be the cannibal tribe. It’s not good for trade and it scares the kids. Worst of all, cannibalism is very bloody on the Blood-Ritual Spectrum, causing more than its fair share of contagious violence. (Food for thought: maybe the cannibal invaders were just trying to shake off their cannibalistic practices!)

The elders come up with a plan to de-cannibalize. They restrict cannibalism to prisoners only, then to only dead people, and then only domesticated animals that they pretend are people. Modern Latin American sacrifice calls for a chicken, which the priestess gently rocks like a baby. Then she cuts its throat. Sacrificial substitution gets the tribe out of the crisis situation and into an structure governed by a higher ethic.

If no plan is given, de-cannibalization might happen naturally. Eating a human in a dispute causes far too much revenge and anger. Disputes will have to be settled in cleaner ways (again, we can reference the blood-ritual spectrum). Disputes will become regulated by the elders, who will place strict boundaries around the contestants, which moves the tribe out of the crisis era and into the lawful era.

Lawful Era – The Market of Combat

The lawful era is when our new combat rituals emerge, which as we saw in the blood-ritual spectrum serve to settle blood debts among participants. New chieftains will emerge to help inaugurate these combat rituals. They will provide adequate cathartic release for the spectators, integrating various familiar cultural symbols, turning them into events that can draw many spectators.

It’s impossible to arbitrary dictate which type of combat to institute. Ethnic factors, inter-tribal relations, and geography are just a few of the many variables that will cause the right kind of combat to emerge in the lawful era. Take America, for example. The blood feud (1 on the spectrum) came with the territory, as did the duel (2) and the bare-knuckle fight (3). We see the pro wrestling match (war dance – 8) at early carnivals. Gloved boxing (5) was the sport of choice starting in 1892, and around the same time the bare-knuckle fight (3) and the duel to the death (2) were phased out. Much later in the 60s came competitive Karate (free fighting – 4, though arguably much cleaner than its later UFC counterpart) and only recently did we see the emergence of the Bare-Knuckle Fighting League (back to 3 again).

In a lawful era, the emergence of combat forms will be all over the place. Sometimes a ritual combat will displace others, and at other times both can exist side-by-side. Today, most developed countries have everything from free fighting to war dances (4-8), and many warrior societies still have bare knuckle fight rituals (3). Duels are mostly gone, and blood feuds are mostly gone too.

The lawful era is inherently stable. Rules and regulations are the basis of combat. Contagion is limited by emerging combat markets which balance participant payment with the demand for event tickets. Combat rituals which become outlawed might be commemorated in nostalgic media (Westerns, Chambara) or regulated as cultural treasures if they fail in the market. Lawful societies are generally able to balance the blood debt, avoid violent outbreaks, get the catharsis they need, and defend themselves from cannibals.

Despite its stability, there’s always a chance that a lawful era will descend back into a crisis era: lawful combat rituals might result in an explosion of violent contagion; cathartic outlets might not provide the juice and result in riots; or the cannibals might fly an airplane into a tower.

If the society fears violent contagion and decides to move toward cleaner combat, it might seal up the borders, outlaw all rituals besides the war dance, and institute a formal era via martial law.

Back Into the Formal Era – Aesthetic, But Unstable

A formal era is inherently unstable: borders have to be closed, the state will come down hard on violence, and people have no recourse to blood payment except through the state. Without strict military protection and a smart propaganda campaign, cannibals will infiltrate and destroy a formal society.

The Chinese Government created Wushu and entered its purely formal era for decades, but the formal era was eroded with the reforms of the early 2000s: China invited in more outside media, the borders were opened, and MMA took off. Wushu is still around, but for how much longer? China’s formal era might be on the brink and the country might be joining the rest of the world by moving into a more stable lawful era. North Korea, though it allowed Taekwondo, would still be considered a formal society, albeit a very unstable one.

Nostalgia for authoritarian formalism, original link

And just like the lawful era, a formal era can quickly unravel into a crisis era, as our peaceful tribe discovered.

Though formal eras are unstable, nostalgia for past formal eras permeates society. Musicals like West Side Story and spoofs like The Naked Gun feature highly coded violence. They call back to a time, often a fantasy that never existed, when violence was divorced of its contagious element.

Eras – Blueprints for Action Films

We will return to these eras – crisis, lawful, and formal – when we begin studying genre film, and action films in particular, since action film is a commemoration of the combat ritual. But first we will investigate media more broadly. How do crises affect media storytelling? How can we, as storytellers/filmmakers/choreographers, make the right kind of cathartic media? The next article on code-making will cover this and more.

Part 1 of The Art of Violence series

We hear this a lot: we humans are even worse than animals because we murder one another.

That’s a half-truth. It’s true that animals don’t murder one another, at least not very often, and humans do. The other half of the truth is that humans have created entire institutions to avoid violence at all costs. So, give humans some credit.

Still, the question remains: why do humans murder one another? Why do fights escalate so quickly? Why do we take revenge? And why don’t animals do this?

For millennia, we’ve had spiritual answers to these questions. “We’re fallen”, or “we’re cursed.” These are loaded terms. Unfortunately for us, we’re so far removed from the sacred that terms like these are reduced to mere superstition, and the “educated” mind has a hard time understanding the meaning behind them. But neuroscience and the discovery of mirror neurons can help us out.

The Discovery of Mirror Neurons

Giacomo Rizzolatti discovered mirror neurons first in the macaque monkey. They were looking for the neuron in the monkey’s brain that was responsible for grabbing a banana. They found it, put a probe there, the monkey grabbed a banana, and a machine beeped. Then a scientist grabbed a banana, and the machine beeped again. The monkey, perceiving someone performing the grasping, thought (however minimally) that it was grabbing the banana. (Read: Rizzolatti’s Mirrors in the Brain)

After some more tests, Rizzolatti discovered a large network of mirror neurons in the macaque monkey. Then his team discovered even more in the human brain. If you stick your tongue out at a newborn baby, he’ll stick his tongue out at you. This isn’t rational, and it’s not instinct. It’s pure mimicry in his mirror neuron system. Hi-5s work the same way soon after in development. Eventually he’ll copy your thumbs-up gesture. The neuron network develops from the tongue “outward”.

Meltzoff and Moore (1977)

Mirror neurons create simulations in our brains when we perceive the intentions of others. When we see a man teetering on the ledge of a cliff, we lose our breath momentarily. Our neurons mirror his, creating a simulation of his intentions in our minds. It’s like we’re him. That’s how a baby perceives his mother: he and his mother are one. The concept of the I doesn’t emerge until 2-3 years old, when the mirror neuron system is mostly developed and begins taking on a “mind of its own” (the ego).

Mimicking Intent, Not Action

As developed humans, we don’t simply copy the movements of others. If we did, we’d never get anything done. Instead, we mimic intentions. Mimicry is context-dependent. If we see a clean table set, and a hand grabs a cup, we’ll assume the intention is to drink from the cup. A dirty table set, cleaning up. The hand may even take the same shape, but the difference in intention will fire a different neuron cluster. Intention is everything.

When someone performs an action, we load the intent into our mirror neuron centers. Then we have two, usually unconscious, choices. In this article we’ll focus on the decision to act on the intent load.

Action Understanding

In a martial arts class, we copy the teacher’s punches thousands of times. In the end, we learn how to punch. By acting on the intent load, we strengthen the circuit between the neuron and our motor system. But something else is happening without our knowing it: we’re learning how to read punches. Every time you punch, you twist your foot slightly, and your hips move a bit, and one shoulder goes back. You’re mostly unaware of this, but that’s how every human body must move to do this punch. By doing this thousands of times, you can see that movement in your opponents. So when the shoulder moves in that certain way, you know a punch is coming. This is called action understanding and it’s how Muhammad Ali could read the minds of his opponents.

Muhammad Ali’s action understanding was master class

This “mind reading” is just action understanding taken to its logical ends. This is why “doers” make better critics than academics. Charles Barkley will always be a better basketball critic than an armchair sportscaster.

We’re sparring in our martial arts class now. The opponent lunges at us with a punch, we create that simulation in our minds, and if we’re properly trained we block or dodge. If we’re not trained, we don’t have the action-understanding necessary to defend ourselves, and the data is stored in memory without a proper outlet. Either we develop the action understanding necessary to release the intent load, or it’s stored as trauma until we have a proper resolution.

So, we’ve decided to act on the intent load. We punch back. There’s a back and forth. Martial arts class is a good place to test the mirror neuron system. Our teacher then sits us all down at the end of class. A good teacher will say, “Don’t go using this in the streets.” A bad teacher says we’re ready for war. Why aren’t we ready for war? Animals fight and get things done, so why can’t we?

Animal Combat vs. Human Combat

Animal combat is like our sparring class. When the opponent is coy and hides his right hand from view, we know he’s trying to conceal a punch. In our sparring class, all the variables are well know. Our opponent’s weapons are 2 hands, 2 feet, and in some classes his elbows and knees. He’s outfitted with appropriate defensive gear – groin cup, maybe shin and forearm pads, probably a helmet. The equation is 100% transparent to both combatants.

This is exactly how animals of the same species enter into combat: “I know he’s got hands, his teeth, the claws on his feet, and a thick coat I won’t be able to claw through.” Animals within a species generally aren’t able to kill one another with their natural weapons, and they don’t try to. They load all these intents and eagerly enter battle with one another, knowing that they (probably) won’t die. This is a closed altercation.

If we take our martial arts training to the real world, a different scenario unfolds. Our opponent hides his hand. Do we think he’s hiding a punch now? He could have anything. In an open altercation, at least one combat variable is totally unknown.

Monty Python’s Flying Circus

This is a key difference between humans and animals: humans use tools, animals don’t. When humans enter an open altercation, neither side knows whether he’ll get stoned, shot, stabbed, etc. Either we back down and avoid certain death, or we escalate just in case and stone, shoot, or stab first.

Star Wars: A New Hope (1977)

If we train ourselves in a hostile open altercation environment, we begin to suspect anybody with his hand in his pocket is hiding a weapon. We automatically assume the worst in otherwise normal situations. This is PTSD.

Rene Girard got us only so far with Violence and the Sacred with his research on violent escalation, but he couldn’t give the why. Now we have a neurological reason for why humans escalate to extremes.

An open altercation might not end there. The victim’s cousin might take revenge. Then our cousins will take revenge. Then his entire family will avenge them. Eventually we realize we’ve started a civil war.

The Contagion of Violence

Our ancestors understood civil war so well that the very threat of violence and bloodshed took on a character of its own. Violence was rightly seen as a contagion that threatened to destroy all of humanity. The CDC issued a report that said gun violence acts like a plague. They were wrong: all human violence acts like a plague.

Image by Catherine Yang

Many of us wish to believe we’re above violence, but nobody is free from the constraints of the mirror neuron system. When we witness violent intentions, we load it. There’s no choice made. No matter how gifted or enlightened, this is what humans do automatically. Our celebrities and politicians present “rational” resolutions for this problem at every turn. Our ancestors had amazing resolutions to this issue, which will have to be covered in another article. Action cinema and gaming is not far from what they created. But when our leaders decry rituals as savage, imperialist, or simply stupid, they deliberately cover up the reality that humans are cursed by this. We are fallen, and this is what defines human violence.

Continue to Part 2 of The Art of Violence series
The Blood-Ritual Spectrum