The Strange Brain of the World’s Greatest Solo Climber

Alex Honnold has his own verb. “To honnold”—usually written as “honnolding”—is to stand in some high, precarious place…

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Say Hello to Your Fear Threshold

Alex Honnold is the world’s greatest free solo rock climber, which means he climbs with no rope or protective gear of any kind.  In 2008 he became the first climber to scale Half Dome in Yosemite in this style.  He looks peaceful, calm, deliberate, and totally in control on the rock, but he is literally 1 tiny slip-up, on the scale of millimeters, from certain death.

How does he do it?  and Why?

To Honnold, the most astonishing fact is not that he is able to do it, but that he wants to do it, which is a fact about himself that he has always known but can’t fully explain.  Using functional MRI scans, scientists were able to identify his brain’s fear center (the amygdala), and document the fact that it doesn’t fire at all under stress compared to other age-matched adrenaline junkies.

No Fear?

So he doesn’t feel fear?  Well, not exactly.  Honnold himself describes the “adrenaline spike” he feels when a foot slips or he finds himself off his planned route.  He also says that he was really scared on his first ever solo climb, and he utilizes journalling and mental imagery, both revisiting past situations to figure out what he might have done differently and anticipating the perfect climb along with almost everything which could possibly go wrong (including falling and dying) before he climbs.

Brain Training

What Honnold is doing is using his prefrontal cortex (the planning center) of his brain to “reconsolidate” (or even “pre-consolidate”)  fear memories, and turn them into useful go-to algorithms for his brain that can be loaded into the prefrontal cortex before amygdala-based panic sets in.  According to Marie Monfils, head of the Monfils Fear Memory Laboratory at the University of Texas, this is a textbook, if extreme, approach to dealing with fear.  By repeated mental imagery of past and future climbs, Honnold has been able to turn outrageous acts, like swinging by his fingertips from an overhang, to walking toes-out across Thank God Ledge in Yosemite (1800 feet off the deck), into methodical, step-by-step, routines.

What You Can Learn

For most of us, physical activity is laden with fear, most of which is imagined.  Think about it – the first thing you see on an exercise video or machine is a warning – but it’s much more dangerous to sit on the sofa eating Cheetos, which is what’s really killing us.  So where’s the warning on the sofa and the cheetos?

When you are exercising, do you feel fear at the slightest hint of discomfort, breathlessness, or fatigue?  Try channeling some of the techniques of the world’s greatest solo climber.  When you plan in advance how to confront your fear threshold, you will be much better equipped to push through it.  You’ll quickly achieve new levels of strength and stamina and you will find your body capable of things you never thought possible.

The key is training your brain’s simulation engine to override fear by pre-programming it with step-by-step protocols.

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