Does fear make you a better climber?

Climbing requires a significant amount of mental and physical energy. The climber needs to think about their line, their holds, and any potential consequences of any error. Free soloers don’t utilize harnesses, and are more at risk of disaster with any fall.

So can fear help them climb safely? The article doesn’t answer this directly. What it does is show the effect of adding cognitive tasks to physical activities, and should serve as a warning for anyone who performs tasks that have life or death implications.

What they did was interesting, and had jumped off from earlier work. The authors took 15 experienced climbers, and gave them 5 tasks to complete. 3 were bouldering tasks, and 2 were simply memory tasks. The memory tasks were to listen to words during 3 minutes, and recall as many as possible for the 90 seconds afterwards. Of the bouldering tasks, 1 was just going back and forth for 3 minutes, and the other 2 required listening to a list of words while climbing, and then recalling them immediately afterwards.

What makes it intriguing is the differences between the memory tasks. Apparently there is a list of Affective Norms for English Words, and it rates words based on emotions. The categories are happiness, sadness, anger, fear, and disgust. So for the seated and climbing memory tasks, one used a list pulled from 40 words with the highest fear score, and the other pulled from 40 words that scored low on all 5 categories.

It is not surprising that there was a difference in recall between seated memory tasks and those with climbing. However, it is surprising that there was a significant difference in climbing efficiency and distance between the fear and neutral dual-tasks. Sure, they’re not huge differences, but the time of the test was only 3 minutes. Combine that with experienced climbers and a course height, limited to less than 3.3m which shouldn’t have been a struggle for them, and it makes the difference real.

The authors state that fear “words” may cause the climber to subconsciously use more caution, or be slower as if they had actual fear. This may or may not be the reason behind the shorter distances and diminished efficiency compared to non-fear-inspiring words. Multiple other references point towards real fear certainly causing decreased performance, so the concept isn’t completely out there.

The other point that is important is that there was a large difference in recall with physical activity, with the participants remembering less than 50% of the words. Thus, if you take nothing else from this article, remember that half of what you way to the search and rescue guys while they are working will be forgotten, and you’ll make them slower in the process.

Of note, this article uses the word “whilst” 10 times, which has to be some sort of record.

Green AL, Draper N, Helton WS. The impact of fear words in a secondary task on complex motor performance: a dual-task climbing study. Psychol Res. 2014 Jul;78(4):557-65. [PMID 23873435]

Further Reading

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Wilderness Medicine

Emergency physician with interests in wilderness and prehospital medicine. Medical Director of the Texas State Aquarium, Padre Island National Seashore, Robstown EMS, and Code 3 ER | EBM gone Wild | @EBMGoneWild |

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