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Dim Mok or Dim Mak: Touch of Death

Movies are especially bad at perpetuating martial arts myths. After all, they are trying to entertain an audience, and reality can have a way of being less than exciting (I disagree with that, but alas...) A common myth is that of the infamous Touch of Death. Essentially, it boils down to a wizened master, attacking his adversary with a single touch to the perfect place on the body. In some instances, the adversary dies immediately. In other cases, the master's control and precision is so great that he can dictate when in the future the adversary will die. Still other cases, the master's touch leaves a searing scar before the painful demise.

There is certainly a good bit of potential fear involved in this kind of myth. After all, if you thought the old man could kill you with a touch, would you mess with him? I wouldn't. It's kind of like messing with a poisonous snake. It would be especially intimidating if you didn't know how the old man could carry out such an attack. Its mysterious nature is what gives it its "power".

So could such a thing be possible? To answer that, we need to describe a few things first. The ancient Chinese believed that through the body flows something called Qi (or Chi, there are many ways to spell this), or life energy. It doesn't seem to translate perfectly, but the essence is that this energy cycles endlessly through the body along fourteen channels, called meridians. The flow of this energy is essential for good health. If there is an imbalance, for example, you might become ill.

Acupuncture uses this same concept of meridians and their many branches. The acupuncture needles control the flow of Qi, so the practitioner is responsible for restoring the smooth natural flow. This is why acupuncture is considered medicinal. There is quite a bit I'm leaving out, but the bottom line is that Qi is essential for life, and the flow of it is important. As an aside, acupuncture does not rate very high on my list of preferred medical procedures. While, as with any pseudo-science, there are advocates that swear by the results, I don't believe there are any studies that have been done that perform exceptionally better than placebo. A real double blind test is tough in this case, as it is not hard to tell when someone is actually sticking sharp needles in you or not, and the acupuncturist would always know when they are using the correct meridians or just picking random spots. More troubling is when people begin to claim that they can do acupuncture without the needles, strange as that sounds. Single blind tests have been performed that show moving the location of the needles, essentially away from the meridians to random spots, produces similar effects. (In fairness, I'll mention that advocates can point to some studies that show some minimal benefits, but the studies that claim effectiveness are often of poor quality.)

On the other hand, the dark side of acupuncture is called Dim Mok. It uses the same concept of life energy, but for bad. The Dim Mok practitioner can supposedly control the Qi to a degree where he or she can end life. Imbalance the Qi just right, and the body performs a Qi-based Star Trek-style antimatter cascade failure. Death results.

Let's think about this Qi. Life energy is a pretty fantastic sounding term. Surely every life form must have it to survive. Before we get too carried away, imaging this sparkling warm glow inside of all living things, keep in mind that this concept was developed thousands of years ago. This was before people knew about cells, nerves, the reasons why oxygen is important, how muscles work, and most other things about the human body that we think of as second nature. Clearly an animal is different than a rock. What is special about an animal that makes it move, think, and react to its environment? Modern biologists tackle this these days, but the ancient people faced a similar dilemma. There seems to be something that drives humanity to abhor a vacuum of knowledge. If we don't know how something works, we invent an explanation. What we don't know about the origin of our world is answered by religion. The Chinese came up with life energy, or Qi, to explain how we and other animals work.

So is there anything to this life energy stuff? Well, my opinion is that it is a simplistic attempt to explain the horrendous complexly of a life form. There are some parallels with science, such as the need for balance in many of life's processes (i.e. not too much, not too little, but just right.) So it is an attempt at an explanation, but I think it's a simplified abstraction. There are few things that we gain by the abstraction, but there is negligible evidence that the meridians mean anything. Energy is such a universally misused term. Science offers a better, more functional explanation.

But then so what does this have to do with Dim Mok? The ancient principles of Qi and meridians have been blended with what we know about anatomy. There are places on our bodies where the nerves are close to the skin. These are called pressure points, and are usually obvious because they are sensitive. The solar plexus is one such place. This is the area where the ribs join together, and can be found between the pectoral muscles in the center of the breastplate. If you take one of your knuckles and firmly push, you should feel pain, more so than you might expect. There are many places on the body like this.

The reason you feel sharp pain (or at least, an unpleasant, hard to ignore feeling) is because of the presence of more nerves in that area. The nerves are basically the electrical conduits of the body. Exactly how these works is a bit complicated (I'm not a biologist by any means), but it essentially comes down to electrical impulses and chemistry. Stimuli cause a reaction where positive and negative charges are built up such that electrons begin to flow, and thus a signal is sent. There are many different types of nerves, from motor control nerves, pain receptions, sensory nerves, etc. Most of the time, pressure points are places where nerves with specialized ends called nociceptors are concentrated. These nerves are responsible for detecting damage, and the signals they send are interpreted as pain. By "activating" a pressure point, these nerves are stimulated to the point where the body perceives "damage" in the affected location. Any other kinds of nerves that are present in a pressure point are also determined by their location. The most well-known pressure point is probably what is known as the "funny bone", or the back of the elbow. Not only does this one hurt, but a sufficient blow can cause all sorts of havoc, such as numbness or temporary loss of muscle power in the elbow.

While there is some debate on exactly how it happens, it is known that a blow across the chin stimulates the nerves below the ear (running down the back of jaw), causing an "overload" that renders the person unconscious. Overload may not be the best term, but it is at least conceptually functional. Something got stimulated beyond the body's ability to process. Clearly, stimulating nerves can have profound affects on the body.

Dim Mok, then, is also said to be manipulation of these pressure points. We feel pain most of the time, but, like the back of the elbow, it is also possible to affect other kinds of nerves when stimulating pressure points. Most of the stories about Dim Mok involve hitting pressure points in just the right way to cause all sorts nefarious ends. Some popular shows have had characters that have seemingly endless powers when it comes to touching just the right spot. Some stories say you have to hit the right spots in a specific order to produce the required result. Given the nature of pressure points, with their ability to inflict massive amounts of unpleasantness, these kinds of stories seem to have a modicum of scientific credibility. Scary, right?

Depends. If the question is whether or not it is possible to cause some affect when hitting pressure points, then certainly, that is true. If you're talking about hitting something, then the possibilities do open up considerably. Knockouts aren't always caused by nerves, but by jarring the brain (some make the argument that this is the only way for a knockout to occur). A sufficiently powerful blow to the chest can stop the heart. In fact, any sufficiently powerful blow anywhere near something vital has the potential to cause death.

The myth, though, is that it is a touch, not a blow. Could death be caused by stimulating nerves? It is theoretically possible. There are nerves in the neck that control the heart rate, preventing too much blood pressure to the brain. Theoretically, over stimulation of these nerves would cause the heart to stop. As scary as that sounds, it's not something that someone would just be able to do because it is buried deep within the neck. Millions of years of evolution have guaranteed that critical nerves are not in easy places to get to.

Given that it is theoretically possible, though, there are other factors that make these kinds of things even more difficult. Everyone is built just a little differently. Nerves don't always run at exactly the same place, and things like muscle mass can affect the sensitivity of the pressure point. From my teaching experience, I can definitively say that pressure points affect people differently. Some pressure points that cause excruciating pain on one person can have minimal or no affect on another. A large man can recoil immediately, while a young girl can take seemingly endless pressure. It's not that one person simply has more tolerance for pain than the other, but that the nerves are not being stimulated in the same way. The pain caused by pressure points is very intense. A good way to "test" this is to place your hand in front of you, palm down. Find the place where the bones of the thumb meet with the bones in the hand. Directly in front of intersection is a pressure point. With the opposite thumb, try pushing with moderate pressure between the bones in the fleshy area between the thumb and the hand. Some people find this to be a very painful spot, while others find it to be a ho-hum kind of thing. (Interestingly, there are some other tricks that you can do with this spot. Next time you have a headache, push with moderate pressure until you're at the threshold of pain. If you keep the pressure up, the pain from the headache may seem to disappear. Though it appears to be a fancy manipulation of nerves, it almost certainly has to do with the way we process feeling, and not a "short circuit" of nerves as some people describe it.)

Pressure Point
Little known, fairly safe pressure point to experiment with

So given the variability of these pressure points, how likely is it that some kind of nerve manipulation could be used to cause death? Finding pressure points is not an easy thing, as some are usually small and some are at a slightly different place or depth. Most of the time, telling a student where a pressure point is isn't enough. You have to show them, and then a demonstration of the pain is always beneficial (for learning purposes, anyway). How would someone practice this touch of death? Seems like you would actually have to kill someone right? If not, how would you ever know it would work? The ancient Greeks might have been content with sitting back and learning everything there was to know about the world through logical contemplation, but generally science says that seeing and doing is better. Somehow, in order to pass this knowledge down from generation to generation, the practitioners would need to stay up to speed on their death-touch techniques. Theoretically, they might have been able to find unwilling test subjects, but this kind of thing, while great for movies and conspiracy theorists, tends to lean toward the implausible side. Pressure points, and nerves in general, follow mostly the same paths, but have wild variations. Something that would kill one person, if it could even be found (imagine the "experiments" that would take! Sheesh!), may not affect another person.

It just doesn't have as much impact when you point out the issues. Killing someone with a precision touch would require intimate knowledge of the nervous system on a scale of the best science has to offer, today. How could ancient peoples have learned this, or understood how it worked? How would you maintain this body of knowledge? There are quite a few easier ways to kill someone. While it isn't completely impossible to assume that someone somewhere somehow knew just how to shut down the body with a touch (not a strike!), I think it's practically implausible. If it is a strike, then it is a totally different entity. After all, most strikes should be directed toward vital points, and pressure points are prime targets. If Dim Mok is simply striking these spots, then Dim Mok is not much different than what most martial artists train for anyway. You could argue that Dim Mok attempts to strike only pressure points in particular, and that would be a valid distinction. In both of these scenarios, however, the practice of Dim Mok is certainly viable and plausible. When the definition is expanded to include a mere touch, or beams of Qi, or anything that doesn't fit a highly specialized and effective striking technique, it is unlikely.






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