"I want to do Iron Head Qi Gong."

Imagine, hitting yourself on the head to cure headaches. Not exactly an outcome one would expect now, is it....

The whole concept of head conditioning kind of frightens me. Yes, it's a common phenomena in Shaolin, in fact, you can find most of the monks have had some sort of experience with head conditioning. This whole theatrical smacking the iron bar on the head always kind of fascinated me, in a morbid kind of way, as, from a distance, which most people view this show from, it looks kind of nasty. Not exactly the kind of thing one would want to do to oneself. But, one day, I got the opportunity to play with these little iron bars, and it became very obvious to me, that shattering them is not all that hard. If you smack one gently against the sidewalk, or another hard object, they will break quite easily. The reason being, they're made of brittle iron. I'm far from being a metallurgist, but, I can tell you, that this is just poor quality iron. I guess it wasn't heated enough, or banged enough, to get all of the carbon out of it.

Despite the fact that the iron bars that the monks use, are just brittle iron, I certainly wouldn't want to bang one of these against my head. I'll have to admit, that in order to break these bars against your head, you either have to have a thicker than normal skull, or lesser than average intelligence, two qualities which are not lacking in Shaolin. The conditioning that some of these guys go through, to build up the calcium stores in their skulls, thus increasing the thickness and strength of them, takes some time, and requires that they undergo repeated trauma to the head. The way that bones are built up, is through continued and repeated stress. The more that the bones are stressed, walked on, hit, struck against, etc, the more trauma that they endure, the stronger that they get. It's simple physiology; put weight on a bone, stress it, and more fibrous tissue and calcium inlay will occur, thus causing the bone to get stronger. The problem with conditioning the head, is that the brain us under that half inch thick skull. And it doesn't get stronger with repeated trauma.

Let's look at some simple anatomy. From the outside, going directly in, the anatomy of the head kind of simply goes like this. First, the hair, which, does provide some protection against the temperature changes the head is exposed to, does not really provide protection against impact. That is, unless we're talking about someone with one hell of a thick afro, and even then, depending upon the type of impact and the object used, even that might offer various amounts of protection. Next, is the scalp, a blood vessel rich, three eighths of an inch thick segment of tough tissue. It offers some protection against blunt trauma, but, not much. Remember, when it comes to tissues, it is not only the amount of energy that is imparted to the tissue, but also the surface area of the object. A large hand might not cause much damage to the skin or skull, or any other type of tissue, where as, a ball point pen, or a hammer, both of which have a much smaller surface area, if struck to the same tissue with the same amount of force, will cause penetration and damage. The surface area, or, more specifically, the pounds per square inch generated, will carry more weight when it comes to tissue penetration than the amount of force used. The scalp can be torn, and it bleeds one hell of a lot, which results in an individual with a traumatized head, sometimes presenting with one hell of a lot of blood, all from some small and simple scalp wound.

On the reverse side, and this is what makes head injury so fascinating sometimes, is when an individual presents with a head injury, and no external signs of trauma; no cuts, no bleeding, no mess. But, they have a lot more damage. For when it comes to head injuries, penetration of tissue is not the only way the injury can end up being severe. If you take a blunt object, with a large surface area, and strike the head with a significant amount of force, you might not see any external signs of damage, but the damage inside can be tremendous. For, when a head is subjected to a force of significant energy, that energy is imparted from the striking object, to the scalp, and the underlying structures, which, quite simply, are the skull and the brain. Now, thinking from simply an energy standpoint, if the scalp absorbs a lot of that energy (again, depending upon the surface area, etc), and breaks apart, less energy will reach the skull, and the underlying brain. If the striking blow is diffuse enough, the scalp may not tear (ie, may not absorb a lot of that energy), and the energy will be transmitted to the skull. Sometimes the skull will absorb some of that energy,and fracture, thus protecting the brain somewhat. However, and again, depending upon the surface area of the striking object, the skull might not fracture, and that energy wave, is transmitted through the skull directly to the tightly embedded brain within.

Now the brain just doesn't like getting hit. Nerve tissue in the brain is not held together as tightly as nerve tissue that is found within nerves. The brain is a delicate structure, filled with blood vessels and nerves that basically hold themselves together through their connections with each other. The brain is surrounded by some membranous structures, but these provide limited protective effects for the brain itself, and provide more of a function with respect to the cerebral spinal fluid which envelops the brain. Imparting energy to brain tissue can result in disruption of the various neural connections within, all to varying degrees. Minor trauma can result in just some of these brain cells getting disconnected from each other; major trauma can result in major disruptions, whereby the brain tissue is obviously bruised, separated or torn apart. The result of these disrupted connections depends upon what part of the brain is injured. Remember, various areas of the brain do varioius things. Let's take a look at that, in a simplistic fashion.

The front of the brain controls emotions and personality. The left side of the brain controls the right side of the body, and the left side of the face. The right side of the brain controls the left side of the body and the right side of the face. Moving from front to back, after we see the frontal lobes, which play some role in emotions, memory, personality, etc, you get the sensory and motor strips, which control the feeling of sensation and the ability to move, the temporal lobes which play a significant role with respect to memory, the parietal lobes which play a role in memory and complicated tasks, and in the back, the occipital lobes, which are primarily concerned with sight. On the left on the side, is the area for speech. Now, remember, that it's all far more complicated than this, as these different areas all interact with each other, sight, having to interact with the parietal-temporal regions to check memory to see if it has seen what it presently sees before (recognition), sight interacting with the movement areas to assist with walking, all of which interact with a structure called the cerebellum, which is underneath the rear of the brain, which helps with balance and coordination. All of these areas talk to each other constantly, so that you can do the simple things that you do, day in and day out. Deeper inside the brain are areas called the limbic system, which have to do with emotions, sexuality, and things like that. Also in that area, in the thalamus and hypothalamic regions (in the deep middle of the brain), you've got the areas which control basic bodily functions, such as temperature regulation. These areas also act as the central train station, sending different messages from various parts of the brain, to other areas of the brain that they need to go to. It's all very complex, and amazing, how the different areas of the brain communicate with each other. Truly an amazing organ.

But it's an organ which is easily damaged. It doesn't take much. True, the scalp and the skull will act to absorb energy that is imparted to the head, but, two things need to be understood here. The severity of the blow is important, as is the repetition of those energy impacts.

One very large and significant impact of energy to the head, such as is found in a car accident, can cause significant damage to the brain lying within, with minimal external signs of damage. The energy imparted to the brain in such an impact can cause cellular disruption and death to various degrees, in various parts of the brain, all depending upon how much energy, over what period of time, the brain was subjected to. The location of the initial impact, and the direction of the force, can play a role. A large amount of energy imparted to the very front of the head might cause some damage to the frontal lobes, resulting in personality changes (more agressive behavior, think of the frontal lobes as the area which controls hyper emotions that originates in the more deeper lying limbic system, such as aggressiveness and sexuality). But, because the brain kind of "floats" within the skull, surrounded by the cerebrospinal fluid which buffers it, attached mainly to the spinal cord below, the brain can "move" around inside the skull encasement. Not much, but enough to cause damage to the opposite side of the brain that gets impacted. Think about the brain as this jello like substance, sitting on a spring (the spinal cord), surrounded by a concrete encasement Ithe skull). When you smack the skull in the front, the underlying front of the brain absorbs some of the energy. But because the brain is mobile to some degree, it, because of the direction of energy imparted to it, bounces back away from the blow, and hits the rear inside of the skull, thus causing damage to area of the brain opposite to the initial impact, in this case, the sight giving occipital lobes. Thus, a blow to the front of the head, can cause some disruption to sight. The trauma mechanics that occur during energy impartting activities to the head are complicated to say the least. Needless to say, one large blow to the head can cause significant and permanent damage to various areas within the brain.

Small blows can cause damage also, but, because of the incredibly huge amount of nerve cells in the brain, each blow, which causes some damage to some cells in some areas of the brain, might not result in foreseeable external deficits. The loss of some brain cells might never be noticed, as, others might take their place, or, the loss of abilities that those small amount of brain cells are responsible for might never me noticed. This is particularly noticeable in boxers. Each time they get hit in the head, a small amount of brain cells might get disrupted, therefore resulting not necessarily in cell death, but in disconnection with surrounding brain cells, thus causing those cells to be relatively useless. More severe blows might disturb local blood supply, resulting eventually in some brain cell death. But, since there is some redundancy built into the system, the loss of some brain cells might never be noticed. However, over time, with repeated blows, and repeated absorption of disruptive energy to the brain, more and more cells might either die or get disconnected, thus, eventually resulting in noticeable neurological deficits. If you watch the behavior of some fighters, who have been concussed many times, you'll notice a pattern of hypersexuality, hyperaggressive behavior, and Parkinson's like activitiy. The exhibited aberrant behavior comes from the loss of frontal lobe inhibition of more deeply rooted limbic behaviors; the Parkinson's like activity comes from disruption of nerve centers deep within the brain, around the area where the brain connects with the spinal cord. Again, if you think of the brain as a mass of jello sitting on a spring, each time the brain gets whacked, the brain bounces back and forth on the head of that spring (the spinal cord). The amount of torque at that junction with each energy transfer, can cause some damage to cell connections and cells, in that area. This should explain the behaviors and clinical presentation of various professional fighters that you might know The unfortunate thing is, the more they get hit and concussed, the worse their behavior gets, which, can lead to further concussions.

Concussions can have long term effects, such as photosensitivity (a sensitivity to bright lights), headaches, dizziness, imbalance, psychological changes, and a whole plethora of various neurological deficits, all depending upon which underlying areas of the brain suffered the most damage. They can be short lived, and tend to be, as most people, around 90%, who suffer a concussion, usually resolve their symptons within a year. Others, the other 10%, tend to have chronic illness. Those who suffer repeated concussions, can have worse symptomatology. Unfortunately, repeated head injuries do not have additive effects when it comes to severity of clinical deficits and symptomatology; one plus one does not equal two. With repeated head injury, the effects of multiple concussions tends to be more exponential when it comes to describing symptomatology and deficits; one plus one equals sixteen. In other words, once you've had one concussion, the next one won't give you twice the symptomatology, the next one will give you symptomatology worth fifty fold. The brain is not something that you want to mess around with. It gets hurt easily, and once hurt, gets hurt a second time, much, much more easily.

Head training for hard qi gong needs to be done safely, if done at all. I would never recommend to anyone that they purposely strike themselves on the head. No matter how small the blow, some damage to some inconspicuous part of the brain might occur. Do it one hundred times, and eventually, some clinical deficits or other symptomatology might become noticeable. Hard qi gong is practiced by striking the head either onto or with a hard object. It is usually done softly and repeatedly, so that, over time, the constantly traumatized skull can respond by laying down more fibrous tissue, which it eventually hardens into bone by the influx of calcium. With repeated blows to the head, the skull will eventually get thicker and harder. But, if the energy used to strengthen the skull, goes through the skull into the brain (ie, if the skull does not absorbl all of the energy), the brain may become damaged, to various degrees, depending upon the amount of energy that it absorbs. There is no way of knowing how much energy is absorbed by the delicate brain underneath, except, that if the person doing this, gets headache, or other neurological complaint, they're definitely using too much of a blow. Too little of an energy impact might result only in scalp tissue trauma, with no skull strengthening occurring. So, if you're going to do this head qi gong conditioning, you're walking a fine line, between damaging your brain to some significant or initially insignificant degree, or, you're making a fool of yourself by only bruising your scalp.

Is it a good thing to do? Well, for monks, who make their living smacking their heads with iron bars in front of awed audiences, it' something that they have to do. But remember, these guys, at least some of them, are looking forward to careers as martial arts instructors or bank security guards. They're not doing complicated accounting, practicing law, drawing architectural plans, calulating engineering specifications, teaching children, or doing all the various and sundry things that the rest of us in the world do, or aspire to do. So, if you're young, and have plans for a successful life on top of your martial arts practice. banging yourself on the head is probably not a worthwhile thing to do. In this case, the risks far outweigh the benefits. You can't repair your brain, and though I've dated some goddesses that defnitely would have been better off with this one, you can't replace it. Take care of it, and you'll be all the more happier because of it.

Oh, and will it grow hair? Interesting question. If you look at the fact that the post-trauma to tissue period results in temporary hyperemia (more blood vessels expand in the area, new blood vessels grow, as part of the repair process), one might be able to theorize that these actions might replenish blood supply to starved hair follicles. Not sure if any studies have looked at that now. But, if you think about it, do you really want to be some hairy dumb ****?

Bald is beautiful baby. Remember that.