Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Mirror Neurons: How we learn by watching

You here it all the time, don't you....

Watch better climbers and you'll learn to climb better

And it seems to work, we see someone shift there body position slightly, maybe twist into the wall a bit more, and can then reach that elusive hold. Then we can recreate it.

But how does it actually work?  

Well, I went to a very interesting lecture last week on mirror neurons, with the thoughts that there are a certain set of neurons within your brain that fire whilst you are doing a task, and whilst watching someone do the task, for instance, you reach for an object, XY and Z neurons fire. You watch someone else reach for the object, XY and Z neurons fire again.

This is a new concept, as previously it was thought that when learning (or relearning) a new task, the brain observes, analyses, breaks down step-by-step, then recreates the new task. 

But it's much more of an instinct as that.

With one provision:

There must be a goal, a purpose to the task

 If there is no goal, say, just a hand making a fist shape, then the mirror neurons get bored, and therefore don't fire. The task has to be purposeful, like reaching for food or an object (or climbing a route!)
The brain sees the initiation of the movement, understands the task in hand, and almost figures out the "filler" bit in the middle of how to achieve it. 

This helps us understand lots about how we learn new tasks, and can be used in a context of a child's learning, or in the re-learning of tasks, for instance, after an acute brain injury.
It also helps explain how we feel empathy, as when we watch someone fall off a problem, miss a hold, miss a penalty, whatever the analogy, then it's like we are the person doing it, the same neurons in the brain are firing.

The lecture I went into went into a lot more detail, however, I'm going to leave you here, further reading is available below, or some TED talks that are always worth a watch! 
Any questions, comment below!


Harriss JP 2014 Mirror Neurons. Presented at Annual Brain Lecture


Rizzolatti G 2008 Mirror neurons and their clinical relevance. Nature Clinical Practice Neurology

Further watching:

Ramachandran 2009 The Neurons that shaped civilization. TED Talks

And a heart warming story to end, to show that it does work:

R D'Angelo, F Fedeli 2013 In Our Baby's Illness: A Life Lesson. TED Talks

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Fingers: Ganglion Cysts

So, I've noticed a few posts on certain climbing websites discussing ganglion cysts within the fingers, and so decided that I would write a post about them, considering there were one problem I omitted from the original finger injuries post.

What is a ganglion cyst?

A ganglion cyst is a liquid filled area within a joint capsule or tendon sheath that has bulged out to a particular side.
These cysts are caused by a congenitally weaker part of the capsule or sheath that cannot handle the extra pressure of over-creation of synovial fluid, which is created by over use and chronic stressing of joints. 
They can vary in size from pea to golf ball sized, and can occur anywhere in the body but most commonly in wrists and fingers. The size is often related to the amount of stress placed on the joint, therefore more stress = larger cyst, and this is why they most commonly occur in flexor tendon sheaths of climbers, just before the first finger joint.
Ganglions are normally harmless but can cause pain, especially if they irritate a nerve. 


  • Pain
  • Visible swelling of a lump
  • Decrease in mobility around the joint


The old adage of "smack it with a book" doesn't really work for cysts, no matter how much someone encourages you! As, even if it works and gets rid of the cyst for a little while, it will only refill.

Common treatments involve aspiration, steroid injection, or surgical removal of the cyst, however, some have suggested ultrasound as a treatment for the pain caused by the cyst.

Some people have steroid injections into/around the cyst to relieve the pain, however it is worth noting that steroids have been known to weaken tendons and tissues and so could cause further problems with the cyst. 
Varley et al (1997) found that there was equal success rate of removing a ganglion cyst (33%) with aspiration (insertion of a needle and draining the fluid, as depicted above) compared with aspiration and injection of steroid.

The other option is to have the cyst surgically removed, which has a re-occurrence rate of the cyst of only about 5%.


Unfortunately, there is no current way of preventing a ganglion cyst, however they could be caused by unnecessary stresses on your joints, so avoiding or adapting the effect of these stresses could help, for instance, adapting / changing your climbing style, climbing more efficiently.

Ensuring full range of movements within your joints will also reduce the stresses put on the joint.
As usual, ensuring proper warm up/cool downs and eating well will aid the prevention of injuries.


Hochholzer T, Schoffl VR 2006 One Move Too Many. Lochner-Verlag, Germany

NHS Choices

Varley GW,  Needoff M, Davis TRC, Clay NR 1997 Conservative management of wrist ganglia: Aspiration versus steroid infiltration. Journal of Hand Surgery 22(5): 636-637