Last week, I watched a National Geographic documentary about an American rock climber named Alex Honnold. Not only does Alex climb up massive rock structures without a harness, but he also does it with no equipment, no team to monitor him, and no ledges to stick his feet on.
This dude climbs STRAIGHT UP a flat wall.
I’m not even kidding.
There were moments during the documentary when I thought, “What is his foot even resting on? Do his shoes have suction cups on them? How are his thumbs gripping onto nothing?”
And in each moment, he was doing these incredible things at hundreds of feet off the ground. Throughout the entire video, the film crew kept reiterating that if Alex made one tiny mistake, he’d be dead without a doubt. Most of them couldn’t even watch what they were filming. They could only set up a camera tripod and turn their heads.
People who don’t know much about rock climbing kept saying things like, “Wow, he’s so brave.”
But everyone who knew what free soloing entailed kept saying, “He must have a death wish.”
Questions about Alex’s sanity kept coming up, as well as questions about whether or not he was an extreme adrenaline junkie. Most adrenaline junkies still feel a certain amount fear or anxiety when death is a likely outcome of their endeavors. However, Alex seemed to be as calm on the roughest edge of El Capitan as he was with both feet on the ground.
So what gives? What’s up with him?
About halfway through the documentary, a scientist finally asked if they could study Alex’s brain. They wanted to know why he had the courage to do things that no one else would even consider, and why he could do them without panicking. In other words, they wanted to know if he was using sheer force of will or if his brain was different.
As it turned out, his brain was different.
The amygdala in Alex Honnold’s brain–a set of neurons that control human emotion–is less active than most people’s. This means that it takes significantly more stimulation for Alex to feel emotional than it does for the average person.
When he’s one sweaty fingertip away from plummeting to his death, he doesn’t feel terrified or frozen with fear like the average climber would. His adrenaline might send him into fight-flight-or-freeze mode, but he’s not going to feel panicked while he’s fighting or fleeing.
Even those who are experienced in the field of rock climbing still feel fear when taking on something extremely dangerous, but Alex only seems to feel excited and relaxed–confident, even. He describes this frame of mind in the documentary and talks about his potential death as if it might just be another blip in his day.
The discovery about his brain made me wonder about all the kids I’ve worked with in the behavior field who act impulsively without fearing consequences. Do they have biological differences in their brains, too?
It’s definitely possible.
We already know from scientific studies that ADHD brains in children have generally smaller prefrontal cortexes, which control a wide range of decision-making processes. We also know that the size and functionality of the amygdala and the hippocampus are affected by ADHD in kids.
But what about all the other kids? What about the ones who haven’t been diagnosed with anything but still seem to have a deep need for an adrenaline rush? What do their brains look like?
The answer is likely so diverse that we could never know the full extent unless we scanned the brain of every child who ever existed. Most days, I really wish we could do that–not to place children into compartments, but to have more accurate information about how they learn and what they need.
The amygdala isn’t the only piece of the brain that could be smaller/larger/, more/less active, or differently shaped. The human brain is so incredibly complex that if we could see everyone’s–the way we’re able to see eyes and noses–we’d be more shocked by the number of differences than the similarities.
I think we’d probably stop using the phrase “neurodiversity” altogether because differences in brain function would simply be understood as normal.