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.

The Pleasures Of Anger

Anger is toxic, corrosive, and damaging; it is the poison we imbibe to hurt others. But like other substances described as ‘poisons’ anger is also intoxicating. As those who have ever felt ‘the red mist’ draw down over their eyes will readily testify, an outburst of anger is wholly controlling; a terrifying loss of self-control. But not one that is wholly unpleasant. And thus anger may be addictive too.

As the experience of happiness can be pleasurable, so can that of anger. This aspect of anger may partially explain its resilience in our emotional frameworks; part of the adaptive character of anger, its continuing survival, might be the pleasure it affords its ‘sufferers.’  Anger is difficult to control, to ‘reign in’; an acknowledgement of the pleasure anger provides may enable us to understand why ‘pointless anger’ and ‘raging’ and ‘venting’ exercise the hold they do. Those driven to drink wake up with hangovers; it is the price they pay for the pleasures of the night before. Those driven to anger may pay the price of broken relationships to experience the pleasures of the red mist. Those who require anger management require treatment in much the same way substance addicts do; they have found a source of once-pleasurable indulgence that has ‘gone wrong.’

There is little doubt about anger’s constructive qualities;  we are exhorted to ‘get, and stay, angry’ if we want to bring about change in this world; we are asked to cultivate an emotion supposed corrosive. Anger appears as a vital tool of our emotional arsenal; a good slave and a bad master. Anger makes us uncomfortable; in seeking to rid ourselves of it, we find the motivation to bring about desired moral and political change. But anger provides too, a space for indulgence of exhilaration. The experience of anger can be feelings of power and moral superiority. These are not unpleasant emotions.

Anger, a primary moral emotion, cannot play the vital constructive role it plays in moral condemnation and outrage unless it provided an affective state that was ‘welcoming’, one that provided more ‘comfort’ than the state of non-arousal from which it represents a departure.  Moral anger has the motivational and affective force that it does precisely because moral anger is pleasurable too. To feel that anger is to feel alive; to deny that anger is to anesthetize ourselves. The angry person told to ‘work through’ his anger, to ‘get over it,’ to ‘overcome it,’ is asked to substitute a bland, affect-less state for a pleasurable, emotionally charged one. Anger is not just frustration or fear writ large; anger is an uncontrollable itch, indulgence in which brings relief and pleasure. In anger we let ourselves be overcome, taken over. Such occupations will not proceed as smoothly as they do if they were taking place in an unreceptive environment.

We condemn some forms of pleasure-seeking—perhaps free soloing, which is dangerous, encourages reckless copycats, and leaves families anxious and scared. We might condemn the angry in similar terms.  The addict’s pleasure seeking is condemnation-worthy when it interferes with life projects; his own and those of others. These are the grounds on which we may condemn the addict. And the angry.