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.

One comment on “That Alex Honnold MRI In ‘Free Solo’

  1. George Gale says:

    Yup.

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