Firing Neurons, Snow and Rock Climbing

This article is part of a series exploring research done for an upcoming book about mental training for rock climbing, tentatively titled Vertical Mind.

Traces on snow

If you’ve tried any hard rock climbing or bouldering, you very likely have had an experience where a climbing move initially felt impossible. After a few tries, it felt a lot better. After a dozen tries you could do it reliably. What’s up with that? It’s not that you got stronger by trying the move over and over. In fact, you probably got more tired. What you have experienced, in large part, is due to your nervous system adapting and learning the movement and doing what is required to do it reliably. This is basically LEARNING!

As late as the 1970’s, some scientists believed that long-term memories were stored as sequences in our DNA and RNA, in our genes. One of the most important discoveries in neuroscience since then has been that neuronal connections or synapses can be formed or strengthened, and this is referred to as synaptic plasticity. In the bouldering example, every attempt helped strengthen the synapses that are used in doing the moves.

So, all training is mental training, quite literally.  Behaviors or movements (e.g., precision flag, overgripping) are the products of neural firing.  Neurons in your brain initiate your movements.  These neurons tell particular muscles to contract or relax via peripheral neurons which relay the messages.  Similarly, all thoughts (e.g., “I’m going to fall”) and all emotions (e.g., fear of falling) are the products of neurons firing.  These are the three domains of psychology: thinking, feeling, and doing.  No neural firing equals no thoughts, feelings, or emotions.  You are dead.  In fact, it takes many, many neurons firing in particular patterns to produce these end results.  Understanding a bit about how this system works will help your mental training.

First, saying a neuron has fired means an electro-chemical reaction has occurred.  This reaction is the way signals are transmitted from neuron-to-neuron or neuron-to-muscle.  Second, any specific neuron receives inputs from many other neurons.  Some of these are sending it signals to fire and some are telling it not to fire.  At some threshold, in response to the multiple inputs, a neuron fires in an all-or-nothing fashion.  For example, intense fear isn’t more intense because the neurons are firing harder.  The intensity comes from more neurons firing.  Third, (and now we are getting somewhere) Hebb’s Law states that when Neuron A fires, causing Neuron B to fire, changes occur in the neurons that make this firing sequence “easier” or more likely in the future.  Some say, neurons that fire together, wire together.

Why is it that Hebb’s law exists? Assuming that you believe at some level that we have evolved over time to be the species we are today, Hebb’s law is crucial in our survival. It takes the thoughts and activities that we experience often, and makes them more automatic. Take walking for example. Walking took great effort and concentration when we first learned to walk as children. Over time, Hebb’s law made it so that walking requires very little effort. It is very automatic. Would we have survived as a species if walking always took the focus and thought that it did when we first learned? No way. We would have been pterodactyl food for sure.

Back to how this relates to training for climbing. The key to utilizing Hebb’s law is practice and repetition. As we practice, the required synaptic connections get stronger and stronger, until they are automatic. By practicing times-tables or beta, we are in a sense beating down a well-worn path.  I always tell people I teach to picture a college campus right after a foot of fresh snow has fallen.  You want to take the short cut from the parking lot to one of the buildings.  Any route you take is the same in that you will be breaking trail.  However, the next person is far more likely to follow in your footprints.  An hour later, a hundred students have walked that same path and beaten it down to an obvious, easy, clear channel through the foot of snow.  Automaticity is the result of neural changes in response to practice – creating paths in the snow.

As you look to develop particular climbing skills and techniques, embrace practicing because it is what makes for automaticity, which in turn leads to smoother and more efficient climbing movement. Practice drills consistently over and over again until they are second nature. We will share a number of drills in upcoming articles, but here is a video where we share some drills to help you improve your footwork, one of the most important and overlooked aspects of climbing training.

Try these drills and practice them. They will definitely improve your climbing performance.

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