What you see is what you get – mental training for rock climbing

This article is part of a series exploring research done for an upcoming book about mental training for rock climbing, tentatively titled Think – Play – Send!

In a previous article we discussed how neurons that fire together, wire together –  Hebb’s Law. Repetition is key to learning and helps build strong synaptic connections that move things from working memory to more automatic responses and behaviors. In this article, we’ll discuss how our brains recognize and interpret information from our senses and how it does so quickly and efficiently, enabling us to deal with variation between things in the world around us.

When I say the word “car,” you probably get a visual in your minds eye of some particular type of car. It may be a sports car, a sedan, or maybe even a truck. Over your lifetime, you have been exposed to many examples of cars and you can now recognize hundreds or maybe even thousands of different looking objects as cars. Psychologists would say that you have developed a schema for cars. The word schema comes from the Greek word skhema, which means shape. You can recognize the general shape of things that are cars.

The ability to form schemas is critical to our survival, in that it allows us to recognize and react to situations in our environment without having to think too much. Let’s suppose I lived in pre-historic times where I faced many predators who would love to have me for a snack. The ability to quickly recognize a predator, regardless of shape or size, or whether obscured by a tree, is critical to my survival. If I had to stop and consider whether a particular shape in the bushes was a sabertooth tiger or not, I could very well meet my end.

The following is a simple example of the power of schemas. In the top/first figure below, identify the one shape that is different than the others.

schemas and training for rock climbing

Note how long it took you to find the one instance that was different. Now, look at the figure below and identify the one object that is different than the others.

Schemas and training for rock climbing

How long did it take you to find the different object? If you are like most people, it took you longer to find the different object in the second figure. Weird, huh?

The reason is that the objects in the top figure resemble the numbers “2” and “5”, and over your life you have formed pretty strong schemas for these numbers, making them easy to recognize and differentiate. The objects in the bottom figure are not shapes that most people have strong schema for, making them harder to recognize and differentiate.

So, schemas are very important in learning and in our day to day activities. One thing to note is that our sense of sight is dis-proportionally important in the formation of schemas. The word schema means shape, implying vision. When you think of a car, chances are that you think of it’s shape, not its smell, sound, or feel. You “visualize” its shape and color. Our eyes, our sense of sight are the most powerful sense. Large parts of our brains, I’ve heard up to 30%, are activated by visual stimuli.

While our vision is very important, it alone is not involved in schema creation. A classic and powerful demonstration of this is known as the McGurk Effect. Watch the video below to experience the McGurk Effect.

What is the man in the video saying? Now play the video again, but this time close your eyes and listen.

When most people watch the video, they hear the man say “da, da, da.” When they close their eyes, they hear him say “ba, ba, ba.”

In the McGurk Effect, our brains are tricked. They see a man lip-sync “ga, ga, ga” and they hear him say “ba, ba, ba.” This confuses our brains and our brains interpret the experience as the man saying “da, da, da.” Weird….

All our senses are involved in schema creation and in aiding us in maneuvering through our world. So, what does this mean to how we train for rock climbing? The implications are twofold. First, when we expose ourselves to various climbing situations, we begin forming schemas around them. When we layback a corner, that strengthens our layback schema. When we dyno, that strengthens our dyno schema. Repeated exposure makes for strong neuroconnections and strong schemas, allowing us to move quickly and efficiently when we encounter situations for which we have strong schemas built. Strive to expose yourself to situations where you do not have as much experience. This will help fill out your schema library and make you a better climber.

Second, you should keep in mind that all your senses are involved in creating schemas, and you should strive to involve as many senses as you can when you climb. Doing so requires significant focus of your attention. Next time you climb, practice being intensely aware of what each hold looks like and how it feels when you use it. Also be aware of the sounds and smells in your surroundings. Awareness of and focus on the climbing experience, involving as many senses as you can, will accelerate the formation of schemas, which in turn will improve your climbing ability.


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