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Opposable Thumbs, the Neo-Cortex & Padded Cells by Mark Hatmaker

[The following is excerpted from our book No Second Chance: A Reality Based Guide to Self-Defense.]

We, humans that is, have, like our primate cousins, opposable thumbs which enable us to grasp any object we see fit. One of the attributes that separates us from our primate cousins in the use of our opposable thumbs Is the myriad objects we see fit to grasp and how we utilize these objects once we grasp them. Our species is descended from a line that sought to grip objects and use them in ever more unique and creative ways. This grasping of an object and then turning it into a tool of some sort was (and is) so pronounced in hominids that one branch of our family tree has been dubbed Homo habilis or “Handy man.”

This ability to see wide and varied applications in grasped objects is the result of the neo-cortex, that vaunted overlay of brain matter that we find in our species. The neo-cortex is what allows us to pick up a hammer and see it both as a tool for construction or destruction. It allows us to see a sphere and envision it as a ball to be bounced, rolled, thrown, struck with a stick, fired from a BB gun, used in machinery, embossed with continents to make a globe, and on and on and on.

This extraordinary combination of opposable thumbs and neo-cortex goes a long way towards explaining the success of our species in manipulating the world around us. I call your attention to these wondrous but perhaps abstruse (in our context) facts because it seems that, more often than not, self-defense advice is either too focused on tools or not focused enough. Let’s start with too much focus.

There are those among us who have permits to Carry a Concealed Weapon (CCW in my state) in other words, they have the legal right to carry a firearm for personal protection. (Let’s get something clear right up front, I think CCW licensure is a terrific idea; non-partisan research on the topic seems to support it as well). There are also those who carry any number of other gadgets: Pepper Spray, Mace, Tasers, Rape Whistles, what have you. I do not wish to argue against any of these tools used to provide safety for the individual as long as the tools are used with the utmost care and responsibility. In other words, just as CCW permit carriers have to undergo an education and safety test to carry a firearm it might behoove the individual who is carrying any other device to have a firm pragmatic grounding in how their device works and in what situations it might be for naught.

An informal poll of those who carry “self-protection gadgets” reveals that the vast majority have never received any training in using the device and, get this, most have never used the device whatsoever even in a test situation. By this I mean, the vast majority of those who carry pepper spray have never fired a can in open air to check for distance, blowback, ease of use or any such realistic parameter whatsoever. I simply find it hard to believe that a tool that is meant to be used in a high-stress situation that has never been utilized in any context whatsoever will be used competently or at all when needed.

 By all means, if you are going to entrust your life to gadgets of any stripe, please, echo the responsibility of CCW permit carriers and learn the ins and outs of the chosen gadget. Make sure you understand how to use it, when to use it or, even if the gadget in question is effective in the least. Remember, you must plan and act now as it is far too late for training once you are in the midst of an attack.

Now lest you think that I am urging everyone to get a CCW permit (I see no problem with that idea for all responsible law-abiding adults) let’s address part two of my too much focus on the tool objection. I have worked with numerous law enforcement, military, and other first response personnel in training individuals for surviving personal attack for over two decades and, I have to be frank, these front line warriors seem to come in two forms.

 The first, is thankfully the most common, the professional who understands the technology he or she is expected to use. They understand its strengths and its weaknesses. They also have a healthy respect for the reality of equipment failure (failure of design, failure to use optimally under duress, failure to access said equipment, et cetera). These individuals take survival training seriously as the nature of their jobs, their lives, their families depends on it. They have all of these fantastic tools/gadgets in their arsenal and yet you find them training as if they had no weapon at hand. These people are grounded in reality.

 The second group believes in what I have heard from more than a few law enforcement personnel as “the 100 pound badge and the 500 pound gun.” This group has placed so much faith in the capabilities of their gadgets that they fail to prepare for what could occur if they encounter any of the aforementioned failures. Considering that the nature of their jobs ensures conflict this stance seems both irresponsible and unprofessional.

Let’s ponder group one again. If intelligent members of conflict professions who are well-armed and well-trained in the use of these arms are concerned about their failure or lack of utility why should the average citizen who is probably less well-armed, less well-trained be any less concerned?

Guns and gadgets in the hands of a well-trained citizenry is not a bad idea. What is a bad idea is an over-estimation of effectiveness and an under-estimation of what you would do without said gadget. It is not uncommon to see normally intelligent people make silly and potentially dangerous mistakes simply because they thought that they had an ace in the hole. I have heard story after story along these lines: “I knew it was a bad part of town but I thought that since I had my pepper spray with me everything would be OK.” Tools should be tools and not a crutch for poor judgment.

Now, let’s address the flip-side of the tool argument. We know that human beings have an astonishing capacity for utility and creativity. I want you to stop what you’re doing right now and look around you. How many weapons do you see? How many objects in your immediate environment could be used to stab, jab, hurl, strike, bludgeon, slice, scrape, poke, do any damage to a predator if needed? How many objects could be used to toss or tumble into the path of someone chasing you, right now?

 Unless you are in the proverbial padded cell you should find numerous objects in your environment that could be utilized to save your life. I’ll stop right here and play the game myself--I am currently sitting in a food court at Denver International Airport.

Ÿ  The ball point pen on the table next to me could be used for jabbing at an eye, throat, any soft tissue target.

Ÿ  The fork to the left of my laptop could be used to jab soft tissue targets as well.

Ÿ  The laptop itself could be flung in the face of an attacker (life over property, remember?)

Ÿ  I could use the chair I am sitting on as shield, to strike with, to throw.

Ÿ  I have a napkin dispenser on the table to my right that could be used to bludgeon or to be thrown as I ran away.

Ÿ  The huge plate of fries at the table next to me (I’m talking huge, people,--who eats that many fries?) could be flung in the face of the attacker. Will it hurt them? No. Will it distract as I move on to the next tool or make my escape? Yep.

Ÿ  A miniature snack chip display rack on top of the counter about a yard away could be wielded to strike with or to be flung.

You get the idea. There are tools, potential self-protection devices in every environment you encounter unless you are placed inside a padded cell (we’ll call that crime scene #2).

With this information in mind, it is time to present our next week-long experiment.


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