That Alex Honnold MRI In ‘Free Solo’

One of the most commented on segments of Jimmy Chin and Chai Vasarelyhi‘s ‘Free Solo‘–the film that details Alex Honnold‘s incredible free solo climb of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park–is that of the MRI of Honnold’s brain. This MRI is performed in an attempt to solve the mystery of how Honnold is able to calmly scale a three thousand feet cliff without any ropes or aids, without apparently suffering the terror that would afflict most human beings engaged in any task that approximated Honnold’s feat. We learn that Honnold’s amygdala–the part of the brain supposedly activated by our fear–just doesn’t light up all that much in his case. See? He’s just built differently from us.

But we were also given some psychological insight, of course: Honnold himself is asked how he does it and he offers some interesting introspective takes on it on fear, risk, consequences, and existential choices; other climbers–like Tommy Caldwell and Jimmy Chin–also chime in. And those around Honnold offer us some explanations of his behavior and attempt to determine its psychological foundations.

Such explanations do not satisfy all–especially those who find MRI scans more convincing than verbal reasons for human behavior:

Unfortunately, Free Solo suffers when Vasarhelyi and Chin psychologize Honnold or attempt to explain his drive for death-defying climbs. It’s understandable why the filmmakers would want to examine Honnold’s psyche, given that his Spock-like demeanor and curiously casual approach to soloing does raise certain questions about his mental stability or lack thereof. Yet every “answer” they ascribe to him (or he ascribes to himself) feels pat and unconvincing. Honnold mentions his father, who was emotionally unavailable to Honnold’s mother but also spurred his son’s interest in climbing. He describes his “dark soul” as a child and his “bottomless pit of self-loathing.” There’s some talk about being a loner in school. Yet none of those explanations are as persuasive as an MRI diagnosis that simply concludes he requires more stimulus than most people. Similarly, Free Solo’s fixation on how soloing affects Honnold’s relationship with his girlfriend feels transported from a more banal film altogether. At best, this material is uninteresting filler, and at worst, it’s a distraction

Now, I hate to have to break the news but ‘pat psychologizing is what we do all the time, every single day of our lives. In fact, if we didn’t indulge in it, we wouldn’t know how to live with each other. Think about our language of everyday social, political, and ethical interaction–replete with wants, desires, beliefs, motivations, the whole gamut of psychological attitudes. We use this language all the time to predict and anticipate the reactions of others; we do not go around conducting MRIs to find out what our fellow humans want or desire or believe; we observe their behavior, we ask them questions, we correlate their behavior with their verbal pronouncements for further refinement and we muddle right along. In courts of law, when we want to know why someone did something, we ask them or other human beings to explain their behavior; we don’t cut open skulls or run scans to elicit reasons–though some neuroscientists want to do just that. All of which is to say that there is nothing ‘pat’ about the psychologizing in ‘Free Solo’; we make this assessment at the risk of being similarly dismissive of most of our daily conversation and our best tool for dealing with other humans.

But the attitudes expressed in the review above are not outliers. ‘Pop psychology,’ ‘psychobabble,’ ‘amateur psychologizing’–these are all apparently Bad Things; we should look for more Scientific Explanations. A laudable sentiment, but one which is too caught up in reductionist fantasies to be anything more than grossly misleading. In the realm of human behavior, psychological explanations are useful, elegant, and successful; and it is neuroscientific ones that have a long way to go:

The fundamental problem…is the urge to ‘reduce’ psychology to neuroscience, to reduce mind to brain, to eliminate psychological explanations and language in favor of neuroscientific ones, which will introduce precise scientific language in place of imprecise psychological descriptions.  This urge to eliminate one level of explanation in favor of a ‘better, lower, more basic, more fundamental’ one is to put it bluntly, scientistic hubris….It results in explanations and theories that rest on unstable foundations: optimistic correlations and glib assumptions are the least of it. Worst of all, it contributes to a blindness: what is visible at the level of psychology is not visible at the level of neuroscience. Knowledge should enlighten, not render us myopic.

The urge to rely on neuroscientific explanations is easy to understand: human beings are complicated creatures; we are creatures of biology, culture, and psychology; to understand what makes us tick is hard.  Some pat neuroscientific explanations seem quite tempting. But what at cost? What, if anything, have we learned about Honnold from his MRI that is genuinely useful–especially since that MRI rests upon a series of as yet unconfirmed assumptions?  That ‘pat psychologizing’ that Honnold and those around him indulge in is far more enlightening; they place Honnold’s behavior in the domain of human relationships and motivations, far more comprehensible for us as human beings, and far more amenable to utilization in our future interactions with our fellow human beings.

Wittgenstein’s Lion And Solaris

Kris Kelvin, Snow, Gibrarian, and Sartorius are all puzzled and perplexed; as other educated and intelligent residents of Station Solaris–a sophisticated scientific laboratory–have been before them. They are stumped and bewildered by their interactions with the planet Solaris, with the ocean that covers its surface, the one that plays host to mimoids and symmetriads and asymmetriads and vertebrids extensors and fungoids and other strange and wondrous physical forms, which seems to be able to conjure up, out of its own chosen raw materials, facsimiles of the human form–like Kelvin’s former, dearly beloved, and now sadly departed love–that are good enough to induce genuine confusion about their identity on the part of those who would interact with them.

Does the ocean live, is it conscious, does it have a body or a mind? Is it intelligent? Is it communicating with human beings? Does it speak a language? Does it possess knowledge of mathematics or computation? Does the surface of the ocean on Solaris engage in computations; is that what the changes in its physical form signify?Are these human forms, the ones that look like the ones we love, are they forms of communication on the part of the planet? Has it scanned our brains, discovered our obsessions and physically realized them in an attempt to establish contact with us? Has it performed a series of vivisections on our brains and psyches, treating us flippantly like objects for experimentation–the way we have treated physical materials and other species on this planet?

The planet is, of course, Wittgenstein’s lion. It has spoken and we do not understand it. All that the scientists on Station Solaris can bring to bear on their interactions with the planet is their knowledge of themselves and other human beings–and their interactions with each other; this knowledge–of their particular ‘forms of life’–forces them into a particular interpretive stance with respect to the planet, one whose prisoners they remain, and which does not afford a unique and determinative understanding of what the nature of the planet is, and or what it might be trying to say–if it is trying to say anything in the first place. The planet has its own ‘form of life‘ that regulates and determines the form and content of its interactions with the human beings engaged with it; there is little guarantee that this communication is set up to enhance, or even make possible, understanding on the part of its human interlocutors.

Kelvin and Snow and Sartorius and Gibarian have come to realize that these concepts they trade in–life, mind, consciousness, thought, persons, intelligence, brain, language–find their meaning with respect to a particular form of life and being–they do not transcend it. They do not allow for the determination of whether the planet, a ‘being’ perhaps radically similar or dissimilar to them, traffics in similar concepts, or anything like them. If they were to ascribe a ‘life’ or a ‘mind’ to Solaris, it would be an asterisked one–‘life as we know it’–and perhaps that’s all we can or should aspire to.

Vale Satadru Sen (1969-2018)

It is with great sadness that I make note here of the sudden passing of my friend and CUNY colleague, Satadru Sen (of Queens College’s History department),  on October 8th, 2018–he would have turned fifty in January. The news of his death came as a shock; my family is united in grieving with his family, friends, students, and colleagues.

Satadru and I met because we had to: we taught at CUNY; we were Indian immigrants who moved to the US at similar ages (Satadru in high school, I moved after my first degree); we loved cricket (Satadru wrote a few guest posts on my old cricket blog, and reviewed my book Brave New Pitch); we had a taste for Indian military history (he reviewed my book on the air component of the 1971 war between India and Pakistan); we liked traveling in the American West (he went on long motorcycle rides across its vast expanses and came back with stunning photographs.) We exchanged notes on our backgrounds and inclinations; we cursed the descent into fascism of the US and India; we fretted and fumed at CUNY bureaucracy, at the stupidity and obduracy of many of its administrative decisions; we were perplexed and enthralled by our students; as we became fathers, we discussed the trials and tribulations of parenting. (Our wives were in law school when we first met, and soon, we were the fathers of young girls–thus allowing for points of resonance between our families.)

Satadru was a genuine scholar and intellectual. As his department made note:

His scholarship was his passion; through it he sought to expose the inequities and hypocrisies wrought by colonial regimes in South Asia and in the Indian Ocean World.  His research ranged from the institutionalization of discipline and punishment to the global celebrity of a cricketer-turned-politician and its implications for understanding the experiences of subjects in imperial contexts.

Satadru’s five single-authored monographs include Disciplining Punishment: Colonialism and Convict Society in the Andaman Islands(Oxford University Press, 2000), Migrant Races: Empire, Identity, and K.S. Ranjitsinhji (Manchester University Press, 2005), Colonial Childhoods: The Juvenile Periphery of India, 1860-1945 (Anthem Press, 2005), Savagery and Colonialism in the Indian Ocean: Power, Pleasure and the Andaman Islanders (Routledge, 2010), and Restoring the Nation to the World: Benoy Kumar Sarkar and Modern India (Routledge, 2015).  In addition to these are two collections of essays and one co-edited volume.

That publication list is one component of the claim I made above; far more germane was the quality of his writing and scholarship. His writing had flair and passion–visible quite clearly too, in his blog essays, marvelous long-form ventures of analysis and observation. (I reviewed his book on Ranjitsinhji for ESPN-cricinfo; in retrospect it might have been the best academic book on cricket I’ve ever read.)

Satadru and I met infrequently, but we exchanged mails and messages often; sometimes we met for drinks or coffee in our neighborhood; after we became fathers, we met with our families for teas and play-dates. On each occasion, we found time to retire to a  corner to trade our mordant little notes on academia, cricket, history, and the like. His observations were sharp and informed; I trust he enjoyed his interactions with me as well.

I’ll miss him; so will his family and friends and all those who learned from him and were enriched by his scholarship and companionship.

Mitchell Langbert, An Advocate For Sexual Assault, Desperately Needs Attention

Mitchell Langbert is a professor of Business at Brooklyn College. Here is what he has to say about the Kavanaugh hearings:

If someone did not commit sexual assault in high school, then he is not a member of the male sex. The Democrats have discovered that 15-year- olds play spin-the-bottle, and they have jumped on a series of supposed spin-the-bottle crimes during Kavanaugh’s minority, which they characterize as rape, although no one complained or reported any crime for 40 years.

The Democrats have become a party of tutu-wearing pansies, totalitarian sissies who lack virility, a sense of decency, or the masculine judgment that has characterized the greatest civilizations: classical Athens, republican Rome, 18th century Britain, and the 19th century United States. They use anonymity and defamation in their tireless search for coercive power.

The Kavanaugh hearing is a travesty, and if the Republicans are going to allow the sissy party to use this travesty to stop conservatism, then it is time found a new political party. In the future, having committed sexual assault in high school ought to be a prerequisite for all appointments, judicial and political. Those who did not play spin-the-bottle when they were 15 should not be in public life. [Addendum: this post has now been edited by Langbert; see notes below.]

Professor Langbert is unafraid to be a man, a real man, a very virile and masculine man. He’s not a pansy; he isn’t a sissy; he doesn’t wear tutus. (The mind boggles.) Negating the consequent of his opening sentence generates the conclusion that if someone is a member of the male sex, then they committed sexual assault in high school. At the very least, Langbert seems to be ‘fessing up to details of his own high school career. Make no mistake about it, Langbert is a misogynist piece of work. And he wants you to know about it. Loudly and publicly.

It is quite clear Langbert wants to be a free speech martyr, to be criticized for his rant above, and hopefully, to be formally disciplined by Brooklyn College administration; when asked for comment by a Brooklyn College student newspaper, he doubled down. For as long as I’ve known of him and his activities here at Brooklyn College, Langbert has been desperately hoping the right-wing assault troops of the new media will elevate his otherwise nondescript life and academic career to the headlines. Imagine: receiving a phone call from Fox, for the Hannity show, or perhaps from Ben Shapiro or Ann Coulter or Dinesh D’Souza or Jordan Peterson. Imagine: a chance to hold forth on national television about how a brave man who spoke the truth on campus was vilified by millennial snowflakes and attacked by liberal administrators! Maybe he could even score a book deal if he was lucky enough. How else would Langbert bring his, er, ‘writings’ and ‘thoughts’ to the attention of the American people? By advocating for sexual assault, that’s how.

PS: By commenting on Langbert’s idiotic blog post, I’m playing along with his game; that’s a drag, but it’s also a good idea to shine the light on this dark corner on campus.

PPS: In the last fifteen minutes, Langbert has edited his piece to now call it a work of satire. What a fucking coward. Stand by your original words. A screen shot of the original post can be found in the Excelsior article linked above. I had copied and pasted the entire text of the blog post; everything else that appears in the version now online is a late edit, a cowardly run for cover by an intellectual and moral midget.