Treknobabble #29: Is the Vulcan Nerve Pinch Possible?

Treknobabble is a continuing series of columns written by uber-Trekkie Reed Farrington in anticipation of the upcoming J.J. Abrams Star Trek movie.

The origin of the Vulcan nerve pinch is attributed to the actor Leonard Nimoy who portrayed Mr. Spock in the Original Series. Supposedly, he thought that it was undignified for the stoic character to slug it out with a “bad” guy although I think Mr. Nimoy admitted that it had been a long shooting day and he didn’t have the energy to go through a staged fistfight. For those unfamiliar with the technique, basically Spock squeezes his opponent’s shoulder area, rendering his opponent immediately unconscious and thus collapsing to the ground.

For a show that had scientific consultants, I’m wondering if this apocryphal origin story for the Vulcan nerve pinch can be believed. I don’t know if there was some collaboration in deciding where exactly the hand should be placed, but the technique is inspired because there is actually some physiological basis. Now it’s generally acknowledged that in real-life, a human can’t perform the technique and even in the fictional world of Star Trek, I don’t think humans can do it either (as witnessed in The Search for Spock where Dr. McCoy who is inhabited by Mr. Spock’s katra or soul can’t perform the technique). But Vulcans have been shown to have super-human strength, and sufficient pressure applied to what is referred to as the suprasternal notch ( jugular notch) can cause unconsciousness. (BTW, this notch is also an erogenous zone. I suppose Mr. Spock could also have grabbed an opponent’s balls to render an opponent unconscious, but we’re talking about 1960’s television here.)

Technically, I think the Vulcan nerve pinch is applied closer to the clavicular fossas in which case the baroreceptors of the carotid sinus might be involved, but I’m a computer programmer, not a doctor, dammit! I’ve asked a kinesiologist who thought that a person wouldn’t go unconscious as quickly as when Spock performs the nerve pinch. I’m going to ask my massage therapist for her opinion during my next visit. I’ll report back in the comments for this post if anyone’s interested.

I should mention that some people have speculated that the Vulcan telepathic ability might play some part in making the Vulcan nerve pinch work, but this theory has been disproven by the use of the nerve pinch by non-telepathic characters.

Whether or not the Vulcan nerve pinch is plausible, it was used before kung fu infiltrated the western mindset, so this mysterious technique was way cool. It’s also interesting to note that the original Star Trek had the actors using a karate chop to the neck to render someone unconscious. There’s also some factual basis for this, but you have to hit the correct spot just right. You don’t see modern productions with characters doing this anymore. I guess it’s too hokey.

With attention being given to the Kirk/Gorn fight in the movie Tropic Thunder, this discussion of the Vulcan nerve pinch is leading to a discussion of mano-a-mano combat in Star Trek. Forget about spaceship battles and light saber duels for the moment. Fight scenes in Star Trek have always been either laughable or boring. (My apologies to all the fight coordinators who ever worked on Star Trek, but this is just my opinion. Actually, I just read somewhere where the Kirk/Gorn fight was chosen as the worst fight scene ever. So maybe my opinion might be widespread. I guess it doesn’t help to have a guy in a rubber suit that offers limited mobility.)

The word laughable probably applies only to the fight scenes in the Original Series. (It didn’t help that the stunt doubles were easily noticeable. I do find it strange that in the episode The Enemy Within where a “good” Kirk is fighting an “evil” Kirk, they got Shatner to do his own fight scenes rather than using two doubles.) Kirk’s “flying drop kick” is legendary. I would think flying through the air feet first and landing on your backside would be more suited to a wrestling ring. It’s probably a good thing that so many alien planets have dirt surfaces.

There was an Enterprise corridor fight scene posted on YouTube of Kirk fighting an Andorian from the episode Journey to Babel. There’s a part in the fight where Kirk jumps up and applies his butt to the Andorian’s face! And both come tumbling down.

Another oft-used attack is interlocking the fingers of both hands and swinging the arms like a club. There’s probably a wrestling term for this. (I should have collaborated with Greg on this post.)

And although cool weapons were used like a huge metal Q-tip with a semi-circular blade on one end, I should mention the Kirk/Spock fight set up by Spock’s fiancée. (I was about to use the “b” word until my newly installed political correctness filter kicked in.) I might make fun of the actual fighting, but there’s no denying the coolness of the fight music composed for this episode. Ben Stiller used the music in “The Cable Guy” and I’m sure other productions have done so as well.

I guess you can say it was commendable for the Star Trek producers to hire actors for their acting rather than their fighting skills (although some people might debate whether they were entirely successful in hiring actors with acting skills). In all the subsequent series, I can’t think of any actors who pulled off the fighting with any believability. Both security chiefs on the Enterprise-D were wimpy. Tasha Yar was killed by a tar pit for heaven’s sake. I could beat up Worf with both hands tied behind my back.

With the introduction of the MACOs (Military Assault Command Operations) in the series Enterprise, I was hoping for some realistic fighting to be finally introduced. But no such luck.

With regard to the upcoming Star Trek movie, I was thinking that it would be cool for Spock to use the Vulcan nerve pinch off-handedly. I’m sure a new generation would find it awesome.

So I was looking in the IMDb credits for the new movie for the Fight Coordinator. I was hoping to determine if I could expect this new Star Trek movie to have something that no other Star Trek movie has ever had. A good fist fight! The Kirk/Kruge fight in The Search for Spock and the Riker/Viceroy fight in Nemesis were both lame, as Jay would say.

The Romulans are the supposed villains in the new movie. Unofficially, the inscrutable Romulans are based on the Chinese, so a display of wire fu would be most appropriate. Some people might be tired of Yuen Wo Ping, but I was secretly hoping to see his name in the credits.

Instead of a Fight Coordinator, I could only find a Stunt Coordinator: Joey Box. He has a long line of credits starting as a stunt performer in 1985 on the TV series Full House. He probably got the Star Trek gig because he was the Assistant Stunt Coordinator on Mission: Impossible III that J.J. Abrams directed. Coincidentally, he performed stunts in Insurrection and Nemesis.

Interestingly, both Kirk and Sulu have stunt doubles as well as two of the villains. You know what this means! Double-team! Or maybe tag team.

I’ve never seen Romulans involved in any fisticuffs. They’re schemers, not fighters. Anyway, I’m guessing there won’t be any elaborately staged fist fights in the next Star Trek movie. But I’m hoping for a well placed Vulcan nerve pinch, even if it is illogical.

  • Danno

    Interesting article.

    I don’t think that the neck pinch could render someone unconscious even with superhuman strength. It would probably damage the muscle and nerves but i don’t think it could stop enough blood/oxygen from getting to the brain. It would probably hurt like hell though.

    If you were to strike the lower base of the skull where it connects to the spine (the occipital ridge) you could quite easily knock someone unconscious. I believe thats a pretty standard martial arts/military tactic for quickly disabling someone.

  • “(I was about to use the “b” word until my newly installed political correctness filter kicked in.)”

    “(although some people might debate whether they were entirely successful in hiring actors with acting skills).”

    Could we have some consistency please? We are some who look to the anal mindset of the author to find out how to properly punctuate english.

    “I could beat up Worf with both hands tied behind my back.”

    Pathetic. You’ve even stopped backing up your snidy remarks towards TNG?

    And please do post what your massage therapist said.

  • JakeTheFatMan

    The Jugular Notch is located at the front of the neck where the trachea (windpipe) is. Applying pressure will just push it back. You’ll need to apply a lot of pressure. I don’t know about an erogenous zone, but I guess thats why people wear necklaces?

    Pinching the carotid sinus should stimulate the vagus nerve and decrease heart rate and blood pressure so less blood goes to the brain. Alternatively if you feel the side of your neck for a pulse (internal carotid) and block that on both sides of your neck, it’ll stop a lot of blood from reaching the brain. Thats why a (good) doctor will not feel for your pulse on the neck at the same time.

  • I liked the article.

  • paulie

    from what i rember about the neck pinch wasnt like a blast of energy supposed to admit from spocks finger tips or some thing like that? i can rember it being explaned by a writer of the show in one of the many specails I saw back in the day also i think it might have been explaned when scifi had a run of star trek with kirk and spock hosting i cant rember.

  • K. Festus

    You’re obviously some kind of fa*got for Ben Stiller since you mention him or his movies no less than twice in this short piece. And you also refer to touching someone’s balls which brings up my question: In what percentage of Ben Stiller movies was he kicked, hit, punched or otherwise assaulted groin-ally? I’d guess 99.9 percent easily. Either he has no talent, or his only talent is getting hit in the nuts. Either way, you’re and idiot for being a fan of that bull*hit.

  • Reed Farrington

    Henrik, the punctuation is different because the use of parentheses is different. In the first case, a sentence fragment is enclosed by parentheses within a sentence, so the period is placed after the ending round bracket. In the second case, a complete sentence is enclosed in a parenthetical thought, so the period occurs before the ending round bracket.

    Thx everyone for your comments on this post and previous posts. If I fail to reply to each comment, it’s only because I think people get tired of me simply saying, “Thank you.” Paul, even your short comment about liking the article is appreciated. I’ll admit my vanity makes me anticipate feedback. Approbation is my lifeblood, but I don’t even mind K. Festus’ hate mail.

    So I had my appt. with my massage therapist earlier today. She’s easy to talk to, but I’ve never talked to her about anything related to Star Trek. She was familiar with the Vulcan nerve pinch, but admitted that she had never seriously considered if it was practical. She said that she had used it to bring her husband to his knees, but doubted she could render him unconscious. (I’m wondering if doctor/patient confidentiality goes both ways. That is, am I allowed to tell other people what she said? Do massage therapists follow the Hippocratic oath?)

  • I see! Is that the proper way of doing things then?

  • Reed Farrington

    As far as I know, Henrik.

    My liberal use of parentheses with thoughts within thoughts has been noted by others in the past, but it’s a stylistic practice that just came naturally to me. It might be considered bad style, but it’s my style nonetheless.

  • Yeah, I think a pinch could never work but I saw this vid on Utube of a guy in a karate dojo getting chopped in the neck and falling out like a ragdoll. I don’t think it was shenanigans.

  • Bas

    My two cents:
    1) “the pinch” fits the character of Spock perfectly, thus it can withstand any sort of real-world logic simply because it rocks
    2) I think you answered your question Reed: the suprasternal notch is an erogenous zone! Just look at that picture in the header – that guy needs a clean pair of Starfleet-pants and he didn’t see it coming.

  • Sometimes it is just great to stop and tell the blog owner that we like their blog.

  • Yes, it sure is, Bill James. Thx for taking the time to comment. Comments are the compensation I get for taking the time and effort to write these posts.

    Most of the times I feel disappointment at the lack of comments that my posts generate. I would hope that something I write would generate some discussion, but I guess it’s good to simply entertain as well. I am guilty of getting enjoyment from articles and posts on other sites and not bothering to comment because I have nothing interesting to add.

  • Kendrick

    I can confirm that the Vulcan nerve pinch is indeed possible. The key word is “nerve”. I must however point out that it is only possible from the left side of the neck. The supraclavicular nerves at the base of the sternocleidomastoideus are compressed with great force against the clavicle by pressing in and down. This should cause a HUGE amount of very sudden pain, enough to cause the brain to go into nervous shock, which would almost instantly render a person unconscious.

  • Awesome that people are still reading my Treknobabbles! Thx for the comment, Kendrick. And if you are indeed correct, then Spock is nerve pinching the wrong side of the red shirt’s neck in the above photo.

    As a side note, I find it amusing that the current advertisement that I see with this article is referencing “neck fusion.”