One by one, the students inched toward the edge, steeled themselves for what they were about to do, then stepped into empty space. As a rope caught them and they swung out into the air in the Arrillaga Outdoor Education and Recreation Center’s climbing gym, their instructors hoped to impart a dramatic lesson: that fear and other emotions can impede or even shut down completely the systems in our brains responsible for movement.
To Daniel Birman, a graduate student in psychology, and Corey Fernandez, a graduate student in the School of Medicine’s Neuroscience Ph.D. Program, the lesson seemed to be going well, as was their class, Vertical Neuroscience: How the Brain Enables Climbing, a summer session course that aimed to teach students about the brain through the lens of rock climbing.
“All of the things that we want people to think about in modern neuroscience, like the connections between the brain and the muscles, the way that fear and pain and different experiences change how those things work, those are all related to rock climbing in some way,” Birman said. “So it’s a nice way to frame a neuroscience class.”
Corey Fernandez is a 2016 Stanford Graduate Fellow and a 2019 Bio-X Stanford Interdisciplinary Graduate Fellow, Neurosciences.