I recently saw the movie “Free Solo.” It was the second time and I highly recommend it! The movie documents the efforts of climber Alex Honnold to ascend the massive granite face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. Of course, El Capitan has been conquered many, many times by many, many people. It is sort of the holy grail of climbing. Over the decades, the techniques and climbers have changed, but all successful climbs have had one thing in common: a rope. Until Alex Honnold, that is. He is the first person to complete a “free solo” of El Capitan—that is, to climb the almost 3000-foot monolith without a rope. It sounds impossible. It sounds crazy. But –spoiler alert—Alex Honnold is still alive. The visual imagery of “Free Solo” is exhilarating and terrifying all at once. It is breathtaking to see a teeny-tiny lone person on the face of the sheer granite with nothing keeping him there except his fingers and toes.
During a brief segment in the movie, neuroscience researchers perform an fMRI scan of Honnold’s brain. Caution! Science ahead! Similar to PET scans, which I touched on briefly in my last post, fMRI scans allow the visualization of neuronal activity in the brain. In short, active areas of the brain use more energy and therefore blood flow increases. For example, when you look at something, the neurons in a certain region of your brain are active and show up as highlighted areas on the fMRI scan. Researchers use fMRI to study the parts of the brain that are activated by different stimuli and, therefore, what parts of the brain are involved in different activities. Vision, hearing, emotions, memory, and many other functions can be studied in the brain with fMRI. The details are pretty complicated, and understanding it is way outside my pay grade, but this is really super cool stuff.
Neuroscientists have also used fMRI to study fear and anxiety, which is the point of scanning Honnold’s brain. The researchers focused on the amygdala, which is a collection of neurons that are essential for fear. This is a gross oversimplification, but the amygdala may be considered the brain’s fear center. Perhaps not surprisingly, it turns out that the amygdala in Honnold’s brain is not very active. It’s like he has a lazy amygdala. It doesn’t pay attention to fear. For someone who climbs 3000-foot granite walls without a rope, this is quite handy. The last thing Honnold can afford to do on an exposed edge is to freeze out of fear. It would be insane to put yourself in that situation. Which is why I think Alex Honnold may be one of the most sane people around. Really? No way is he sane, you might say. But think about this: he has spent his entire life engineering a body capable of climbing. Like a ballet dancer on a vertical stage, he has meticulously planned every step and every hold on the face of El Capitan, down to tiny thumb holds and complex pirouettes. For the last eight years, he has scripted, rehearsed, and visualized the climb. He maintains an extensive climbing journal and he could recite every move on the wall from memory. In short, he left nothing to chance. Exactly what you’d expect from someone who is very sane.
The movie didn’t delve into this, but I imagine there are probably as many theories about Honnold’s amygdala as there are neuroscientists. Is it genetic? Is it learned? Is it normal? Based on his meticulous preparations, I personally think there is a strong learning component to Honnold’s lazy amygdala. That’s right, I think that, over the years, he trained his amygdala to be lazy. Who knows if that is correct or not, it is just speculation on my part.
All this got me thinking about my own amygdala, partially because I’ve been losing a ton of sleep lately thanks to my overachieving amygdala. Nope, my amygdala is definitely not lazy. Instead, it has been working overtime creating all sorts of hormones to make me worry and fret over all the things I have going on in 2019. I will only note the first upcoming test of my amygdala, which is a trip to Patagonia for an extensive hiking and backcountry camping trip. I’m terribly out of shape and I’m afraid that I won’t be able to keep up with the others on this trip. Or, worst case scenario, I won’t be able to complete any of the hikes.
I’ll save my other fears for future posts, but for now, I just wanted to let the world know that, if I’m going to make it through 2019, I need to take control of my amygdala, and what better way to do it than to declare a year-long crusade against it! So, welcome to my year of the amygdala! To celebrate the start of my campaign, I’m sharing a picture from my first and only previous trip to Patagonia. To be completely candid, I only made one or two successful images from that trip and I’m not sure if this one of them or not. What you’re looking at is the amazing Cerro Fitz Roy massif (traversed my Honnold in 2014, BTW). We arrived at this location early one cold morning after a long, dark hike. I don’t remember the distance or the elevation gain, just that it was long and dark and cold. To get this image, I stood in the cold water for several minutes in river shoes and my tripod and my camera. My amygdala was screaming at me. Let me tell you, the initial wave of pain that occurs when you place your feet into 33-degree water is intense. Really intense. Fortunately, in that situation your feet get numb so quickly that the pain subsides before you know it and you’re completely numb from the calf down. Enough for now, I hope you like this image!