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.

Summits As Virtuous Constraint

This past summer, on July 8th, as noted in a post here, I climbed Long’s Peak in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park. A minute or so after I stepped on to the summit, grabbed a quick sip of water, and removed my helmet, I shook my guide Rob Smith‘s hand, and thanked him profusely. I was close to being ecstatic. I had risen at midnight, picked up Rob at one am, and started hiking by 2AM. On the approach to the base of the North Face–from where we would pick up the Cables Route–I had been half-asleep, somehow willing myself to keep up with Rob as he motored along. As dawn  broke, and as the imposing massif of Long’s rose up above, I was feeling the effects of having gained some 3000 feet of elevation on an empty stomach and little sleep. The climbing and scrambling sections of the North Face were mercifully easier than that long, rock-and-boulder strewn approach march, and of course, they required more attention to technical detail, which induced its own alertness. Along with these physical sensations was a sense of foreboding and anticipation; I was keeping an eye on the weather for I did not want to be disappointed again. I had made plans to climb Long’s in the summer of 2017 and had been thwarted then–before we could even set foot on the trail. Then, the forecast had made Rob and I change our  plans the night before. Since then, my mind, overcome with disappointment, had immediately begun a downward spiral in the course of which I had kept track of all the summits I had been denied by bad weather conditions: Stok Kangri in 2011, Cotopaxi in 2018, Mt. Washington in 2016 and 2017. I had begun to believe I was jinxed in the mountains, that these twists of fortune only happened to those who were insufficiently prepared, who did not belong in the mountains. Doubt had crept into my mind that when my guides had suggested turning back on each of those routes, they had done so because they did not trust me to ascend successfully.

So when I stepped on the summit, a spell broke. Suddenly, I was reassured that I belonged here. I had been told that ‘Long’s Peak will be still here when you come back next summer’ but I hadn’t taken it to heart. Now, I did.  I had not ‘conquered’ anything, except, of course, for my own doubts and insecurities. And in this state of mind, it had become clear to me too, all over again, that a summit was not a thing to be conquered. Rather, as I saw it in the clear light of that Colorado morning, a summit was a virtuous constraint, one that clarified and organized my life, driving me onwards. The mountains were not a domain in which I went to find success for myself, to find targets to pick off, to rack up ‘kills’ and ‘hits’ and notches on my belt. They were instead, where I could go to accept failure, to reconcile myself to its inevitable presence, in some shape or form, in my life; they would teach me acceptance and forbearance and some measure of stoicism in the face of forces much, much greater than myself. My summit failures had kept on bringing me back to the mountains; they had induced me to train harder, to keep hoping. Yes, I had despaired too, but not entirely. After all, wasn’t I here, in the mountains, all over again?


Long’s Peak Ascent Via Cables Route

Long’s Peak summit via Cables Route, July 8th. I began climbing last year; this made for a great beginner’s route. Elementary climbing for a few pitches (max 5.4), 6-mile approach (especially hard when you are half asleep), some funky scrambling on our descent through the Keyhole Route, and 5000 feet of vertical gain all added up to a great day. I went with Rob Smith of Colorado Mountain School; we were on the trail at 2AM, on the summit at 8, and back at the car by 1pm.

An Irresponsible, Yet Edifying, Adventure

A couple of weekends ago, my family and I set out to hike Breakneck Ridge in the Hudson Highlands just outside New York City. I’d hiked the Ridge for the first time the day before we went and judged the route–sometimes exaggeratedly described as “the hardest hike around New York City”–to be doable by my almost-five-year old daughter. It was; the scramble up to the top is indeed steep and rocky at points, but nothing that a little hand-holding would not ameliorate. The greatest environmental hazards and barriers were the large weekend crowds from the city; hundreds of folks accompanied us on our hike, making us feel, more often than not, that we were concert goers heading up for a recital on the ridge’s exposed ledges. Enroute, on a flatter portion of the ridge, we stopped to watch a few youngsters doing some bouldering on a large rock structure with a crack running down the middle. One young man had already scaled the feature; another one was attempting to scale it. After a few tries, he gave up, joining in the laughing and general merriment that seemed to be characteristic of this young, adventurous group. My curiosity was piqued; I decided to give the route a try.

There was a minor problem with this decision. The bouldering underway was proceeding without a protective pad, the kind used to cushion falls when boulderers slip or dismount. The ground beneath was not rocky but the route was long and exposed enough to ensure that a fall could hurt badly. Nevertheless, I began my ‘ascent,’ wedging my fingers into the crack for my starting hold and moving on from there. I had lost sight of my wife and daughter; they had moved on ahead and up to the top of the rock. After a couple of false starts, and one partial retreat, I began inching my way up the face. As I did so, I realized with some alarm that the time for safe descents was past; I had to climb this rock in order to be safe. There was no way but up. All around me, my spectators had gone quiet. They had perhaps realized this fact too.

At that moment, a curious crystallization of my thoughts took place; I was gripped with a terror of sorts, but also a tremendous clarity. I had no choice; I had to make it. Every point of contact with the rock became measured; every movement became precise. I did not make any tentative moves; there was no attempt to use a hold that did not seem like it would work. I could see the ‘promised land’ just a few feet away, and sensed out of the corner of my eyes, the young man who had climbed the rock move toward me to extend a helping hand in case I needed it. But he would not be able to help me if I slipped, and certainly no one below me would be able to cushion my fall. I was simultaneously terrified and determined; I had to make this. Or else. That clarity made me climb on. Successfully.

A few seconds later, I was up on top, high-fiving folks. My wife fixed me with a stony glare, and told me to never try that again. She was right; had I fallen, I could have suffered a broken bone or two, a painful and inconvenient injury up at the top of Breakneck Ridge. We were hiking with our daughter, and we had to get her off the ridge as well. It was an irresponsible move on my part. And yet, for hours, I could not stop smiling. Those few moments of absolutely crystalline concentration of mind and body, of utter absorption in the task, of experiencing such acute sensitivity of touch and hold–all mingled with a peculiar terror–were indescribable. Yet again, climbing had delivered; I had been transported.

A Momentary, But Edifying, Lapse Of Focus

This past Friday, I went climbing in the Shawangunks with my wife and daughter; we were guided by Carolyn Riccardi of Eastern Mountain Sports and received some wonderful instruction throughout the day. My daughter attempted some elementary routes as did my wife and I. I also attempted and succeeded in climbing a slightly harder route–for me: the 5.7 rated Nice Crack Climb, whose most tricky part is a bouldering move to get off the ground. It took me six attempts to get past that; a very satisfying if exhausting accomplishment. A little higher up, a crack needs a little work as well, and here, I spent a little time figuring out how to move up. Finally, I saw what had to be done; I would have to twist my body sideways bringing my left hand across to the right and then as I pulled myself across laterally, to reach up with my right hand to a very useful little hold that was now visible. I reached across and moved up–and then, in the very next instant, I had slipped and was dangling on the rope in mid-air, expertly and safely belayed by our guide below.

I had started my celebrations a little too early–and I had paid for it. Not for the first time, I was rudely reminded that it is best to wait till the finish line is reached before tooting one’s trumpet.

In that fraction of a second before I slipped, I had experienced a surge of elation. I had figured out how I was going to get out of this jam and move on to the top of the crag’s face. Till then, I had been tired, a little sweaty, my hands scraped and blistered in a couple of spots; I had started to experience some doubt about my ability–as a very inexperienced climber–to solve this face’s challenges. And then, when the ‘solution’ presented itself to me, I thought I had glimpsed the promised land, the end of the route. I had already started to imagine the backslapping and congratulations I would receive once I had rappelled down. And in that fraction of a second, my mind and body weren’t working together. And so I slipped.

I got back on the route and finished it, this time making sure that I remained focused on completing the move. And I did indeed, celebrate with the rest of my climbing companions once I got back down. That glow was worth basking in; but the most important lesson hadn’t been the fact that I had completed my first challenging route in the ‘Gunks. Rather, I had gained insight into something I had read in many accounts of climbing: that it requires concentration and focus at all times, that the worst mistakes happen when you take your eyes off the prize. Many climbers write of how this intense focus can be intensely pleasurable, allowing them to feel a level of awareness of their body and mind that they do not experience elsewhere. I think I have the faintest glimmering of an idea of what they are getting at now. For this permanently distracted person, that focus seems especially alluring. It sends out a siren call of sorts, beckoning me away from my desk.