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Fire: Climbing for Brain Power

Posted by Joseph Anderson

Climbing for Brain Power

Those of us that indulge in the sport of rock climbing may or may not have specific reasons for doing so.  Inevitably there are quite a few positive health benefits and probably the least expected is what I want to discuss….Climbing is good for your brain.

It is widely known that exercise in general has positive health benefits for the brain, such as increased oxygen and blood flow and the release of chemicals like adrenaline and noradrenalin, thus heightening focus and attention.  It is becoming increasingly clear on a neuro-psychological level that the dynamic and diverse nature of movements and vestibular awareness involved in rock climbing stimulates and conducts brain growth and strengthens interconnections within the brain.   These neuro-connective pathways create life-long learning frameworks that greatly contribute to the success of any and all activities in which one must use the mind.  In order to fully grasp or understand why this is, we need to take a brief look at the brain and how the varied components of climbing affect brain development.

Our brain is made up of different parts that are responsible for both general and specific tasks.  For example, the frontal lobe of the cerebrum is the main area responsible for planning, decision making and problem solving, while the occipital lobe is the command center for processing visual information and the parietal lobe is largely in charge of kinesthetic processing.  Although the cerebrum is regarded as the “cognitive” part of the brain, there are additional parts, such as the cerebellum which is responsible for reflexive learning and conditioned response, and the amygdalia – the pituitary gland – which is responsible for emotional response. Also, the Vestibulocochlear system, with its strategic placement in the inner ear, is the first system to process sound and movement.

No activity or thought occurs without multiple parts of the brain participating because the brain is connected by complex cell networks (neurons) that transmit information through electrical pulses connected by extensions in the cells.   The more one participates in any specific activity, the more the networks are strengthened by connective cells and then further by a fatty sheath, called Myelin.  With proper hydration and fueling, this “myeliniation” allows electrical transmission and communication to become stronger and stronger, thus leading to more developed pathways.  A strong interconnected neural-network is the foundation for learning and brain function.  Sports and exercise of any sort have the ability to build solid connectivity within the mind. Rock Climbing is amongst the kings of brain building activity.

Here are some examples of how Climbing works to strengthen neural networks –

Left/ Right Integration:  Most people typically have a dominant side of the brain whether it is the left side (analytical process) or the right side (movement, spatial process).  As many components of climbing are heavy in both, there is the obvious benefit to interweaving these two sides while climbing.

Emotional Control:  With the impending force of gravity at all times fear can override the system.  Information becomes stuck in our left hemisphere which brings us to overanalyze, lose track of our movements and balance, over-grip and in most cases do the exact opposite of what we should do.    Fear is an autoresponse signaled by the amygdalia which coincidentally has stronger natural networks leading from the higher mind, the cerebrum, down to it than it does back.  As you continue to be an increasingly proficient climber you are literally building a stronger network for dealing with fear.

Visual/Auditory/Kinesthetic/Tactile Integration:  With the cross lateral movement, balance, muscle recruitment, and dynamics involved in the sport there is no higher authority in exercising Vestibular intelligence.  This is your minds ability to gauge your physical self in space.  Many educational experts believe that any learning is not complete until there has been some type of self expression in the form of vestibular movement.

As much of this information is exceptionally interesting to some and perhaps mildly for others, for me, I am quite pleased with the idea that that big smile I get from a good day on the rock is hard wired directly to the brain.  And the more I climb, the more I smile.