Is there such a thing as the "touch of death" in martial arts? Can I walk up to someone, pinch them in a certain spot, and kill them instantly? I've heard people swear such a thing exists, but I find it extremely hard to believe. -- Jon Huff, via e-mail
Even martial arts enthusiasts don't take this one too seriously, except for the impressionable souls who think assassins used the touch of death to kill kung fu star Bruce Lee in 1973. (The more widely held view says he was done in by an allergic reaction to painkillers.) One smartarse on a martial arts message board observes, "One time I hit a guy in a pressure point, and he EXPLODED! It was like something out of a video game man! I swear, there is a point somewhere that makes a human being just burst into giblets if you hit it right!" However, we scientists don't dismiss such phenomena antecedent to inquiry. Having browsed the medical literature, I'd say the verdict on whether this mysterious Oriental skill has any basis in reality is as follows: The touch of death, no. The less-forceful-blow-than-you-might-expect of death, occasionally yes.
Known in Cantonese as dim mak and in Japanese as kyusho jitsu, the touch of death is said to be something like acupuncture's evil twin. The idea is that chi, or energy, flows through the body along lines called meridians. A blow or squeeze applied to certain pressure points on these lines will supposedly put the whammy on the victim's chi, leading to incapacitation or death. Though none of the techniques of dim mak seems likely to consistently work as advertised, medical journals describe many incidents in which a seemingly mild trauma results in disproportionately serious injury, and the sites of some such traumas correlate with dim mak pressure points. Cases like these include:
Commotio cordis, also known as cardiac concussion. This is a syndrome in which a nonpenetrating impact to the chest causes heart failure but little or no structural damage. The classic victim is a kid or young adult who takes a baseball, hockey puck, or other hard object in the chest, but a 44-year-old teacher died when she caught an elbow while breaking up a fight at school. About half the time the victim collapses immediately, and in the balance of cases within a minute or two. Death is thought to result from ventricular fibrillation, a state in which the lower heart chambers start fluttering and stop pumping blood. One study of 128 cases found that 84 percent of the victims died, and nearly all the survivors received prompt defibrillation. Relatively little force is required for the killing blow--one researcher estimates that the blunt instrument need be moving at only 30 mph. Don't think this is something you'll be able to pull on the next ninja who leaps from the shadows, though: animal experiments suggest that you'd have to strike within a 15-20 millisecond window in the heartbeat cycle to have a reasonably good chance of taking down your attacker.
Trauma to the carotid artery. Located in the side of the neck, the carotid artery provides blood to the head. Pressure on the carotid sinus, an especially sensitive area where the artery divides into two branches, can damage the blood vessel walls, leading to stroke followed by partial paralysis, other neurological problems, and, once in a while, death. The precipitating event can be surprisingly trivial--a karate chop has been known to do it, but so has the strain of playing the French horn.
Miscellaneous unexplained injuries. A 13-year-old girl fell in gym class, struck her head on the crossbar of a hurdle, and died. Finding little obvious trauma and stumped for a cause of death, doctors blamed "transmission of a concussive force through the reticular activating system." Michael Kelly, an osteopath and author of Death Touch: The Science Behind the Legend of Dim Mak (2001), claims that the hurdle hit the girl on the "bladder-10" pressure point at the base of the skull, "one of the most lethal dim mak points."
That may be, but the case reports suggest that incidents like this are mostly accidents, more often than not unrelated to martial arts training or theory. Are there some dim mak practitioners, though, who really can achieve these results at will? Probably not, but . . . In a 1999 report in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, C. Terry et al tested a dozen participants in a demonstration of kyusho jitsu pressure-point techniques intended to produce knockouts. Experts hit the volunteers with successive blows at the prescribed spots, e.g. just above the right wrist, just above the right elbow, and in the middle of the back. The recurring result: a "period of unresponsiveness" lasting from 11 to 55 seconds. The tests, which included EEGs and the like, showed no loss of blood flow to the brain or other obvious physiological cause. Were the KOees going into a hypnosislike trance or faking it? The authors think not, commenting, "The exact mechanism for this phenomenon remains uncertain." I'm not about to invoke chi and meridians, but it's possible there's more going on here than we currently understand.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.