THE BLOG
06/14/2010 04:48 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Butterfly Effect at 29,000 Feet

An image of Annapurna III in Nepal stretches across the top of my blog, "Loving The Zone." I write about athletes and how competitive sport enhances life and the brain. Athletes and mountain climbers often reference the Zone to describe the body's natural endorphin high when time slows down and intensifies every detail, sometimes for survival.

When the Zone is launched, that deep-down wellspring of survivalist moxy flies into action. It's our reward for not giving up, just when pain is too great and our body wants to shut down. We're zeroing in on how we gain access to it, as neuroscience continues to reveal more about how our brain functions.

It took nine days of trekking for our expedition to reach Annapurna Base Camp in "The Sanctuary." This venerated sanctity tag didn't last long. Hypodermic syringes from a previous expedition were littered everywhere. We had to assume their entire summit attempt was amped-up on a variety of drugs, and we were stunned.

What happened to the venerated sanctity of the sport? Reverence for the mountain? How was this justified? How did it affect the Nepalese people's opinion of their wealthy foreign guests, bringing offerings of respect?

We climbed as clean as it gets in high-altitude climbing. No oxygen. No Sherpas. When our carefully chosen route was trashed by avalanches, we paid another thousand and sat on the mountain for days, until the Nepalese approved our second choice, that included a 2000-foot vertical Half Dome of a cliff.

Our expedition leader was a climbing buddy of Jon Krakauer, author of the best seller Into Thin Air. His personal account of the fatal and chaotic 1996 Everest Expedition cut close to the bone. I bought his book years after my climb, and it would be my first attempt to read about my own sport, nail-biting and all.

I expected the familiar story of climbers and their teams preparing endlessly and meticulously for a six-hour window of opportunity to place one climbing pair on top, proudly displaying their national flag. Then come out alive.

I was stunned again. Into Thin Air also changed my view of the ethics of mountain climbing forever. The pros were now tour guides, and for an extortionist's fee, would drag their clients, one way or another, to the summit of Everest.

The use of drugs on Everest sensationalized the sport. Famous mountain climbers even died trying to push some of their inadequately prepared clients to the top. And some were left behind to die.

It changed others too. At annual dinners in San Francisco of the American Himalayan Foundation, I met Sir Edmund Hillary and Maurice Herzog, in the rarefied air of the Climbing Tribe. But after Into Thin Air, the dinner topic subtly shifted from climbing to philanthropy. An honorable shift, but the ritual memorializing of recent climbs mysteriously vanished.

Human endurance, even in the face of self-imposed death, attracts timeless attention. There are always stories of athletes who survive the impossible. But if they do, it's apparently with their brain, and not much else.

At TED MED last year, Ken Kamler, a microsurgeon on the 1996 Everest climb, also had a personal account. He described how Beck Weathers may have survived after being left for dead. Other climbers, struggling against a sudden freezing wind, descended past him as he lay motionless in frozen snow with his eyes open.

A day and a half later, just below the summit, Weathers walked down alone and into a tent set up for rescue. Face blackened with frostbite, he lucidly asked Ken "Do you accept my health insurance?" as he described his near-death experience.

After the expedition, Ken hypothetically reconstructed Weather's brain activity from similar brain scans of patients. A dying brain powers down, and one by one, the lights go out. Ken displays fMRI images of the anterior cingulate gyrus, the "seat of will," and how it may have saved Weathers. Where the red of normal had been replaced by power-down blue, spots of power-up red re-appeared as Weathers zoned out on a comforting memory. Thirty-six hours later, like Superman, he launched himself out of the snow and walked down to the tent, as his anterior cingulate gyrus sent neuron signals to the frontal lobe, which powered up the red of self-preservation, sending signals to the posterior, which powered up the red of motor activity. A stunning Butterfly Effect staged in Weather's brain on Everest.

What would our thoughts be if we knew we were dying? Would "life pass before our eyes"? What image would we choose to summon the Zone? For Weathers, it was his family.

We like the idea love had something to do with it, and it did, but there's more... I found an online Scientific American article on magician David Blaine. He held his breath for a world record, accomplished on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Similar to high altitude climbing, David deprived his brain of oxygen intentionally. His initial nervousness on stage raised his heart rate to 150 beats per minute. The audience panicked and screamed as it was displayed. David could see it too. He relaxed anyway and hit the Zone. His heart rate dropped. He made friends with pain. After seventeen minutes, the audience cheered, snapping him out of the Zone. He knew he had just broken the world record.

Another article I found by David Eagleman, "When Life Passes Before Your Eyes," describes what happens in his Laboratory for Perception and Action at Baylor College of Medicine. As a neuroscientist, he's in one of the only facilities dedicated to running experiments on how we perceive time.

His experiments with people in a free-fall displayed a boost of activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, which processes conflicting information. Test results indicate the brain has two separate versions of time, the perception of Now, and another in slow-motion, resolving information that conflicts with Now.

David suspects the brain compensates for conflict by producing a single concept of time that slows the brain down in life-threatening situations. It only worked though, if test subjects kept their eyes open in the free-fall. One test subject couldn't do it, and was eliminated from the study.

I'm reminded of my Big America roller coaster ride. My friend downgraded me for closing my eyes, so we did it again, and I failed. On the third, I was determined. Not only did I finish wide-eyed, I impressed him with the exact number of seismic bolts in the track every twenty feet. How I did it then I don't know -- until now -- realizing I slowed time down then.

As Weather's brain powered down on Everest, his eyes remained open and aware of everything, including the comment of one climber, "He's dead." Like David Blaine, he relaxed anyway, his heart rate slowed way down, and he spent singular time thinking of his family.

Peter Tse, a Harvard cognitive psychologist, offered another explanation. Evolution trained us to recognize novelty. Would we eat, or be eaten? The brain views our daily meal as boringly familiar. This repetition is "suppressed" and diminishes the brain's electrical activity. When we're about to become a meal, survival kicks in and our brain slows time down. Electrical activity soars and we pay hyper-attention to process more conflicting information per second. "It re-calibrates on-the-fly," Tse says.

On Everest, a "dead" Weathers was actually hyper-alive, potentially recalibrating and processing more information per second. This could have saved his life.

According to Einstein, time is relative, depending on whether we're in a spaceship or on the ground. David's free-fall test results of brain activity imply time is relative to the individual, not a location in space. Two individuals can be experiencing the same thing standing next to each other, but their concept of time is relative.

These findings might question the validity of Einstein's theory, ruling in favor of the human brain, regardless of what happens in Space.

Adventurous humans aren't the only heroes. The Everest Expedition was also notorious for featuring heroic machines on oxygen deprivation.

Our expedition required two helicopter evacuations. Each Nepalese helicopter dispatched to Annapurna flew to the 10,000 foot limit of aviation technology that could fly in thin air. Our team physician, bitten by an inch-long centipede, was carried 3000 feet down to the helicopter pad with a massively necrotic arm, in a bamboo basket on the back of a Nepalese porter half his size.

Beck Weathers was rescued by a private French Eurostar, which made an outrageous landing near 21,000 feet in practically no air at all. It's been contested as impossible, even with approach photos taken by the pilot, who risked his life in a pricey helicopter on his own dare.

Epic stories like these viralize in the mountain climbing community, and then spread elsewhere. Something motivates humans, and even machines, to do amazing things.

Now we have curious neuroscientists catching the wave, and attempting to explain the human brain in compelling circumstances.

Climbers are constantly asked the same question. Why climb mountains so high that we might die? We all rehearse George Mallory's infamous 1924 excuse before he disappeared on the third British attempt of Everest. "Because it's there."

Eight climbers died on Everest in 1996. Did they think of love in the end? As a climber, I try to imagine myself. Would this be my choice while powering down? Maybe love would have been the last thing on my mind, and yet...