What Alex Honnold Can Teach Us About Fear and Death

Human beings are amazing creatures. We have the power to visualize something we want to accomplish and turn it into a reality. Alex Honnold is a shining example of this. He envisioned doing the impossible: climbing El Capitan, a 3000-foot (915-meter) wall of granite in Yosemite National Park, without any ropes, also known as free soloing. On June 3rd 2017, he realized the goal he had laid out in his mind, leaving climbers and non-climbers alike absolutely gobsmacked, as he completed a free solo climb of El Cap in record time! 

Just to put this incredible feat into context, most parties climb the route Alex took up El Capitan over a period of 3-5 days with an extensive array of equipment! Alex completed the climb in 3 hours and 56 minutes with just his climbing shoes and a chalk bag. Did I mention he was climbing without a rope!? He was, quite literally, one slip away from plummeting thousands of feet to his death. 

So this begs the question, does Alex Honnold have a death wish or is there a method to his madness? It’s pretty clear from the smash hit, Oscar-winning documentary Free Solo, that Alex has a completely different relationship to fear than the rest of us mere mortals. Fortunately, in the name of science, Alex agreed to undergo an MRI scan so we could see, for the first time, what’s actually going on in his brain and how he responds to fear.  

Inside The Brain Of Alex Honnold

Alex is a fascinating subject for any neuroscientist. His ability to keep his shit together in extremely dangerous situations is rarely seen amongst the general population, or even in many extreme sports athletes. 

If you want a deeper dive into what fear is and how it works, you can visit the post I shared on this topic here. Basically, the amygdala, our brain’s threat management center, receives information directly from our senses and can trigger a reaction in milliseconds without conscious thought. Perhaps you’re out walking in the mountains and forget to pay attention to where you’re going, heading straight for a cliff. Your amygdala will alert you to the danger ahead and, hopefully, stop you from taking that last step off the edge of the cliff and plunging to your death.

Cognitive neuroscientist, Jane Joseph, at the Medical University of South Carolina, in Charleston, led the MRI session with Alex. Here’s what happened (excerpt taken from Nautilis). 

Inside the tube, Honnold is looking at a series of about 200 images that flick past at the speed of channel surfing. The photographs are meant to disturb or excite. “At least in non-Alex people, these would evoke a strong response in the amygdala,” says Joseph. “I can’t bear to look at some of them, to be honest.” The selection includes corpses with their facial features bloodily reorganized; a toilet choked with feces; a woman shaving herself, Brazilian style; and two invigorating mountain-climbing scenes.

“Maybe his amygdala is not firing—he’s having no internal reactions to these stimuli,” says Joseph. “But it could be the case that he has such a well-honed regulatory system that he can say, ‘OK, I’m feeling all this stuff, my amygdala is going off,’ but his frontal cortex is just so powerful that it can calm him down.”

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The brain scans you see above compare Alex’s brain, on the left, with a control subject, who is also a rock climber of a similar age, on the left. The cross-hairs indicate where the amygdala is located. As they both look at the same arousing images, the control subject’s amygdala glows, while Honnold’s remains inert, showing no activity whatsoever.

See No Evil, Hear No Evil

From the brain scans, above, it’s pretty clear that Alex’s amygdala does not respond to excitatory images in the usual way. It’s not that he doesn’t ever experience fear, rather, he has exposed himself to so many dangerous situations throughout his climbing career that he has conditioned himself, learning how to stay calm in spite of the circumstances. 

Alex didn’t just walk up to El Capitan and decide to attempt the free solo on his first climb of this dauntingly sheer rock face. That would have been suicide. Instead, he spent months, if not years, in preparation. He had climbed El Cap maybe 40 or 50 times, with full climbing gear, before even considering attempting it without a rope. Once the commitment to attempt a free solo climb had been made, he meticulously worked on all the hardest moves until he could nail them on the first try. It was only when he felt completely ready and confident with every move that he went for the free solo ascent. 

“This is not scary, because this is what I do.” – Alex Honnold

So, imagine for a second that you have just written a speech you’re going to deliver to thousands of people. What if I told you that you had to run on stage and deliver your speech right this minute? You’d be pretty terrified, right? Not to mention forgetting everything you just wrote. But, what if I gave you six months to prepare and you practised every day, how afraid would you be then? Chances are you’d feel a whole lot more confident because you would know your speech inside out. There is no possibility that you’d forget any of the words. 

It’s this process that Alex has used his entire life to confidently tackle the kind of nail-biting, ropeless climbs you see in the Free Solo documentary. Sure, he probably has some genetic advantages, but the process of desensitizing yourself to fear can be replicated. 

Mr. “No Big Deal” Honnold

It’s not surprising to hear that Alex’s nickname is “No Big Deal.” He’s faced situations that would traumatize most climbers for life. Imagine climbing without a rope and a hand-hold crumbles away or your foot slips. Situations like that would be etched into your memory, forever, along with the injection of panic that you felt. Alex has experienced these terrifying situations on multiple occasions but shrugs them off as no big deal. 

How you choose to respond to dangerous, life-threatening situations is absolutely key in memory formation. If you choose to remember an experience as scary, then this is something your brain will look out for and actively avoid, whenever possible. 

Marie Monfils, who heads the Monfils Fear Memory Lab at the University of Texas at Austin, says, “Honnold’s process sounds like an almost textbook if obviously extreme, approach to dealing with fear”. 

“Until recently,” Monfils says, “most psychologists believed that memories—including fear memories—became “consolidated,” or unchangeable, soon after they were acquired. In just the past 16 years, that understanding has shifted. Research has shown that every time we recall a memory, it undergoes reconsolidation, meaning we are able to add new information or a different interpretation to our remembrance, even turning fearful memories into fearless ones”.

What Can We Learn From Alex? 

1 – Don’t Let Fear Stop You From Chasing Your Dreams

Alex started climbing in the gym at the age of 5 and had become a regular by age 10. He was fortunate to discover his passion at such a young age and was able to progress rapidly as his mind developed climbing discipline and his body developed climbing skills and muscle memory. 

This is not the case for most of us. We have to experiment with various things before we discover our passions, and that takes time. As we grow older, we pick up new beliefs about the dangers in the world around us, which often stop us from chasing our dreams. One of the lessons we all can take from Alex’s success in overcoming fear is never to let fear get in the way. With enough patience, practice, and consistency, you will make progress and get closer to achieving the goal you set out to accomplish. 

It’s important to define what I’m talking about when I say “goal.” Alex’s goal was to create an intentional lifestyle that revolved around climbing. Now he’s fortunate enough to climb all over the world and make a pretty good living from it. Your goal should be a lifestyle, not some single accomplishment within that lifestyle. Develop a set of criteria that you want to live your life by. Your progress should be focused on meeting all the criteria you have set out that will enable you to live the lifestyle you envisioned from the start. It’s ok if your lifestyle vision changes along the way, just make sure to recalibrate your lifestyle criteria and check-in with yourself to ensure that is the direction you want to go. 

2 – Practice The Scary Thing You Want To Do 

It’s clear from Alex’s brain scans that, with enough exposure to scary situations, you can desensitize yourself to the fear response from your amygdala. When you do the scary thing and everything works out ok, meaning you’re still alive or no disaster happened in your life, you can use the experience as a new reference point to tell your brain not to get so worked up the next time you are facing scary circumstances. 

For example, when most people start out sport climbing, which typically involves climbing a 20 to 30 meter rock face with a rope, they are terrified of falling. Sure, you clip the rope into an anchor point every 3 meters, knowing, intellectually, that it will protect you if you fall, but even with this safety system in place, most people believe, emotionally, that they will fall to their death if they slip. Obviously, this is not the case. But, if you practice falling above the last anchor point intentionally, you will soon realize it’s not that scary, after all. You create new beliefs, based on your experiences, that allow you to focus more on the climbing instead of on the falling. 

3 – Learn From Your Mistakes Then Let Go Of Them

One of the things that I mentioned earlier was Alex’s nickname, “No Big Deal.” He is able to analyze what went wrong and learn from his mistakes without holding an emotional attachment to an experience that could have cost him his life. 

Being able to let go of any stressful or traumatic experience is absolutely essential to living a peaceful life. If you cannot let go of the mistakes you’ve made in your past, you’ll never overcome the fear of making those same mistakes again. There is no value in reliving your past and feeling the emotions you felt in those unsuccessful moments, over and over again. It’s only going to hold you back from making any progress. 

You see this with sports professionals who get injured. Sometimes, it can be hard to bounce back and start training again. The memory of the incident will be fresh in their minds, but the ones who learn from their mistakes will soon be back doing what they love. Sure, they may be hesitant and cautious at first, but with enough time and practice they will, once again, desensitize themselves of the fear response and continue with their lives.