• The rock climber Alex Honnold recently completed the first rope-free climb of Yosemite's El Capitan.
• Tests show that Honnold's brain puts him into a category of people that seek out extreme experiences, which may make him less prone to experiencing fear.
• Honnold practices the psychological technique of mental rehearsal in addition to his intense physical training.
On June 3, the legendary rock-climber Alex Honnold completed the first free-solo climb of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park in California. The 31-year-old climbed the nearly 3,000-foot wall in three hours and 56 minutes — without ropes or any protective equipment.
Honnold had stunned the world with free-solo climbs of Half Dome in Yosemite and the El Sendero Luminoso limestone cliff in El Potrero Chico, Mexico. But his most recent accomplishment required unparalleled physical skill as well as a singular mental focus.
"Free-soloing El Cap has been the most anticipated climbing feat of our generation, but only because of Alex," Tommy Caldwell, who trained with Honnold, wrote in Outside magazine. He said he hoped people were inspired by Honnold's "dedication to excellence and ability to live without fear," rather than his acceptance of risk.
"There have been very few people potentially capable of accomplishing this, and sadly most of these individuals are no longer with us," Caldwell wrote.
A different class of sensation-seeker
In 2016, Jane Joseph, a neuroscientist and professor at the Medical University of South Carolina, investigated Honnold's brain for Nautilus magazine. Joseph put Honnold in an fMRI scanner to see how his brain responded to fear stimuli. Honnold also filled out a survey that psychologists use to assess so-called high-sensation seekers, people who pursue thrilling or dangerous experiences.
Researchers showed Honnold images that most people would react to with fear, disturbance, or excitement. Such images usually cause the part of the brain that responds to fear to start firing, but Honnold's brain barely did.
"Alex showed very little amygdala activity to stimuli that most of the rest of us would have a reaction to," Joseph said. That lower-than-average reaction could be what drives people like Honnold to seek out more extreme experiences.
However, other aspects of Honnold's behavior didn't fit with traditional sensation-seeking patterns. Many sensation-seekers can end up in dangerous situations and be vulnerable to substance-abuse problems because they are impulsive and lack conscientiousness, the behavior trait that helps people regulate their actions. But Joseph told Business Insider that Honnold seemed to be extremely conscientious, perhaps enabling him to calibrate his meticulous preparations to the extreme risks he takes.
That exceptional combination may partly be what enabled him to do something no other person has.
"With free-soloing, obviously I know that I'm in danger, but feeling fearful while I'm up there is not helping me in any way," Honnold told National Geographic. "It’s only hindering my performance, so I just set it aside and leave it be."
It would be easy to call Honnold a "daredevil" or "crazy" when you look at his ascents. But if you listen to the way the climber — who is frequently called one of the humblest — describes risk, he doesn't sound like a thrill-seeker.
On an episode of the "Tim Ferriss Show" podcast, Ferriss asked Honnold how he handled the mental preparation for a difficult climb.
"When I'm planning on doing something challenging, I spend the time sort of visualizing what the experience will feel like and what the individual sections of it" will feel like, Honnold said.
"I'll think through what it'll feel like to be in certain positions, because some kinds of movements are insecure, and so they're kind of scarier than other types of moves," he said. "So it's important to me think through how that'll feel when I'm up there so that when I'm doing it, I don't suddenly be like, 'Oh my God, this is really scary.' I know that it's supposed to be scary. I know that's going to be the move, I know what it'll feel like, and I just do it."
In psychological terms, this is known as mental rehearsal, a technique used to get ready for something difficult. The logic is that once you've thought through how everything could feel — even if the task went wrong — you'll be prepared if things do go south.
Honnold trained both mentally and physically for more than a year before his remarkable El Capitan ascent. He climbed every section of the route repeatedly, and he even started an attempt, then abandoned it, in November. Eventually, he decided he was ready.
A documentary about Honnold's record-breaking climb is in the works from National Geographic — here's some initial footage: