The Alex Honnold case is itself one of the most enigmatic episodes in neuroscience. He is the exception to a rule. One of the fears that we all come into the world with is the fear of falling. This is why even newborn babies experience startles if they feel like they are being thrown into the void.
This is an instinctive fear. It comes with us in the genetic package. Falls put our integrity and our lives at risk. That is why biology intervenes and puts fear as a warning sign against the risk of falling.
Precisely the strangeness of Alex Honnold is not experiencing fear to fall. He is a 32 year old climber, born in the United States. He became famous because he climbs without any protection or security measures. In fact, he climbs solo. Those who do this practice know that doing it alone puts them in a state of extreme vulnerability. It is almost suicidal.
However, for Alex Honnold this is the most normal thing in the world. When you climb a rock wall, with no help other than your hands, it feels like you are drinking coffee. You do not experience fear or nervousness of any kind. This led to his brain being studied by neurologists.
“ Fear neither prison, nor poverty, nor death. He fears fear ”.
This is Alex Honnold
Every Alex Honnold climb is a challenge to the death. He likes surfaces that are almost vertical. He wears basic sportswear. He only wears a bag full of magnesium around his waist, to rub his hands when they get wet. He does the climb with the only help of his hands and feet.
Honnold already holds several world records. Its modality is free climbing alone. He is not the only one in the world who does it, but he is the only one to do it at great heights, with a high level of difficulty.
His appearance is that of a normal boy. Somewhat ungainly, if anything. Your attitude reflects that you do not feel different or special. He laughs a lot and is very calm. You know that your activity is dangerous. Several of his friends have died trying climbs like the ones he does. When asked if he is not afraid, he says that he has simply accepted the idea of death better than others.
His mother says he was a difficult child to raise, but he denies it. From a very young age he climbed everywhere. At the age of 10 he began to practice in a climbing wall. Then he started doing little excursions to the rocks. From the age of 19, he left everything and started climbing full time. He lives in a van and claims to have a minimalist ethic.
Alex Honnold’s brain
The exploits of this young man drew so much attention that a group of researchers decided to study his brain. It all started when neurologist Jane E. Joseph heard Alex Honnold’s testimony. From what he was telling and the way he did it, she thought maybe there was something wrong with his brain. Particularly in your tonsil. This is the “fear center” in the brain.
The University of South Carolina School of Medicine decided to examine Alex Honnold’s brain. His brain was “scanned” with an MRI. The first thing the researchers did was check that the boy had a tonsil and that it did not present any lesions.
The next thing was to present him with a series of highly shocking images and assess his reaction. Then they realized that Honnold’s amygdala was hardly activated. He didn’t even flinch. As if the dangerous situations that presented themselves had no emotional impact on him.
An interesting panorama
The researchers were able to verify that Alex Honnold is basically not afraid. However, these conclusions led them to formulate some interesting hypotheses.
Based on his evaluations, Alex’s brain is likely so adapted to unsupported climbing that he has become used to these stimuli. Therefore, what for others is a risky environment, for him it is a completely normal situation.
This conclusion opens up new possibilities for research on fear. Basically, the thesis was raised that habituation is a way to eliminate fear. If someone is gradually and systematically exposed to a dangerous stimulus, they can end up feeling completely harmless. If so, the alternatives in the therapies to treat fears would be greatly expanded.