Enactive planning in rock climbing: recalibration, visualization and nested affordances


This paper analyzes the skilled performance of rock climbing through the framework of Embodied and Enacted Cognitive Science. It introduces a notion of enactive planning that is part of one mindful activity of ongoing responsiveness to the affordances of the wall. The paper takes two distinct planning activities involved in rock climbing—route-reading and visualizing—and clarifies them through the enactivist and ecological concepts of nested affordances, prospecting, recalibrating, marking, and corporeal imaginings, as well as Rylean concept of heeding. The paper shows that an enactive approach to planning can make sense of both the planning done in preparation of the climb, and re-planning done during the mindful performance, without invoking additional cognitive architectures.

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  1. 1.

    For example, Sutton et al. (2011, p. 87) write: "We note, as has Dreyfus, that fast and rapidly-changing dynamic domains like open-skill sports or improvisatory jazz make intellectualist approaches particularly hard to credit. There is no complete specification of the task domain available to be internalized, and even if there was, it could not be searched and applied in time: with little more than half a second to react before the cricket ball reaches you, how could you think first, then act?".

  2. 2.

    Rock climbing (2020, January 15). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rock_climbing.

  3. 3.

    Sport climbing (2021, January 4). The Tokyo Organising Committee for the Olympic and Paralympic Games. https://tokyo2020.org/en/sports/sport-climbing/.

  4. 4.

    "Sport climbing is a form of rock climbing that relies on permanent anchors fixed to the rock for protection, in which a rope that is attached to the climber is clipped into the anchors to arrest a fall. This is in contrast to traditional climbing where climbers must place removable protection as they climb". Sport climbing (2020, January 15). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sport_climbing#cite_note-11.

    "Bouldering is a form of rock climbing that is performed on small rock formations or artificial rock walls without the use of ropes or harnesses. While it can be done without any equipment, most climbers use climbing shoes to help secure footholds, chalk to keep their hands dry and provide a firmer grip, and bouldering mats to prevent injuries from falls". Bouldering (2020, January 15). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bouldering.

  5. 5.

    There are many other kinds of cognitive activities involved in successful rock climbing. In this paper I will not be interested in accounting for the additional pressures for the climber during a competition (stress, pressure to win a competition, or pressure to perform in front of an audience), nor will I discuss the type of mentality needed to get hold of the life-threatening aspect of specific types of climbing activities like free soloing (for such an account, see Ilundáin-Agurruza 2017). My analysis aims to be relevant to rock climbing instances outside of competition dynamics of indoor rock climbing as well.

  6. 6.

    I'd like to thank the anonymous reviewer for highlighting this point and indicating that recently there was a shortening of the time that is allowed for route completion in lead climbing (from 8 to 6 min) and in bouldering (the route, in competitions, must be completed within 4 min).

  7. 7.

    For example, we can see boulderers in a competition at the start of their 4-minute mark taking about half a minute to read the route, brush the holds from chalk, and hang or rest in strategic places of the wall during the climb, to save energy. See USA Climbing (2019, September 27). 2019 USA Climbing: Bouldering Open National Championships|Finals [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lr6zkUmcaoE&t=6306s.

  8. 8.

    Some tips for route reading include: taking a step back and looking at the whole wall (looking at where the route starts, where it finishes, if it goes to the right or to the left); identifying hand holds from foot holds, usually by their shape, and deciding on which hand should go first and what the sequence of the climb should be. If a hold is not "readable", one can reverse-engineer the moves to be made by looking at the top hold, and plan the sequence of their movements backwards. Bouldering Bobat (2019, May 3). Instantly CLIMB better with Route Reading (Visualisation) [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VTInD0tGdn0.

  9. 9.

    For example, according to the official website of the Japanese Olympic Games, bouldering requires the climbers to "plan each move carefully, thinking about which hand and foot to place in the next holds." Sport climbing (2021, January 4). The Tokyo Organising Committee for the Olympic and Paralympic Games. https://tokyo2020.org/en/sports/sport-climbing/.

  10. 10.

    It might be thought that adapting or adjusting to the environment is not part of the planning activity. See Sect. 6 for an argument to the contrary.

  11. 11.

    See Bouldering Bobat (2019, May 3). Instantly CLIMB better with Route Reading (Visualisation) [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VTInD0tGdn0.

  12. 12.

    The concept of secondary representation refers to a copy of the primary representation decoupled from the world so that it could be manipulated in a mechanism for simulation of future possibilities (Stanovich and Toplak 2012). Secondary representations decoupled from primary representations allow for simulations to occur, as they are representations of potential actions that leave primary representations intact, and so, do not confuse the possible world with what the world is really like (Stanovich and Toplak 2012, p. 9).

  13. 13.

    On this model, even speed climbing is not a mindless execution of a climb. It involves the same motoric processes activated in response to the environment, in a faster timeframe.

  14. 14.

    As Araújo et al. (2019) propose, "Conceptualizing such landscapes of action possibilities for sport performers shows how difficult it is to prescribe the existence in advance of 'the optimal' decision for a particular performer. This is because affordances are dynamic and differ in stability (i.e., they emerge and dissolve momentarily in landscapes within dynamic performance environments), dependent on interactions of intrinsic dynamics of an individual performer, as well as task dynamics and environmental constraints.".

  15. 15.

    The radical enactive branch of EECS will also be motivated by the introduction of contentful representations in Type 2 processing. Radical enactivism cautions against solutions that invoke contentful states like secondary representations, as they face the challenge of the hard problem of content: accounting for a naturalistic, non-correlational theory of content to sustain the idea that processes taking place in the brain are representational in the relevant sense (Hutto and Myin 2013). The idea of two distinct information processing mechanisms occurring in the brain is not problematic as such, but it becomes problematic when they involve contentful representations for hypothetical thinking as suggested in the Type 2 processing.

  16. 16.

    As Ryle (1949, p. 95) explains, "I certainly can run upstairs two stairs at a time from force of habit and at the same time notice that I am doing so and even consider how the act is done. I can be a spectator of my habitual and of my reflex actions and even a diagnostician of them (…) Conversely, actions done from motives can still be naive, in the sense that the agent has not coupled, and perhaps cannot couple, his action with a secondary operation of telling himself or the company what he is doing, or why he is doing it."

  17. 17.

    "The sense in which a person is thinking what he is doing, when his action is to be classed not as automatic but as done from a motive, is that he is acting more or less carefully, critically, consistently and purposefully, adverbs which do not signify the prior or concomitant occurrence of extra operations of resolving, planning or cogitating, but only that the action taken is itself done not absentmindedly but in a certain positive frame of mind. The description of this frame of mind need not mention any episodes other than this act itself, though it is not exhausted in that mention" (1949, p. 95). Phenomenological tradition can again help with capturing the "positive frame of mind" idea. Phenomenologists have described it as a special type of consciousness. For example, Heidegger's "ready to hand" attitude, which includes a network of pragmatic functioning of objects, is a kind of consciousness one has with respect to objects that makes one particularly sensitive to their use.

  18. 18.

    Gallagher and Gallagher (2019) has referred to this phenomenon as "twofoldedness of one experience" referring to the example of theatrical play.

  19. 19.

    Gaver's example involves seeing a door handle as affording further action. For instance, a handle alone only appears to afford pulling. A door alone may suggest an affordance for manipulation due to its partial separation from the wall, but not what sort of manipulation will be effective. Only by seeing the affordance of pulling the handle as nested within an affordance of pulling the door can the opening of the door be a perceptible affordance (1991, p. 82).

  20. 20.

    Expert climbers recalled more information and recalled clusters of information and that they focused on the functional aspects of a climbing wall, whereas they neglected its structural features. Inexperienced participants did not recall such clustered information, and they reported almost exclusively the structural features of the holds" (Boschker et al. 2002a, p. 25). This difference could be even more visible in outdoor rock climbing, where the holds are not even marked but have to be found.

  21. 21.

    Thanks to the anonymous reviewer for the suggestion to clarify this point.

  22. 22.

    According to Hacques et al. (2020), prospective control of action occurs "through the information-movement coupling, which enables to continuously adjust the relation between individual and environment to achieve the task-goal" (p. 4).

  23. 23.

    Wagman et al. (2018) propose further that "perceiving whether a given goal can be achieved requires perceiving higher-order affordances extended across multiple levels of the means-end hierarchy" (p. 6). The discussion of the structure of nested affordances through means-end hierarchy is beyond the scope of this paper.

  24. 24.

    I have distinguished planning before the climb from re-planning during the climb, to capture that climbing involves two types of engagement, one focused on perceptual assessment of the climb and one focused on bodily movement during the climb. E.g., in the planning activity during the climb, one can make use of additional tools, such as sensorimotor and kinesthetic information gained from the tactile engagement with the holds, and be more focused on one's bodily positioning (gained from the proprioceptive information), than in the planning done before the climb. This is still consistent with the idea that both of these forms of planning are aspects of one enacted, ongoing planning activity. Planning that takes place right before a specific action execution, and re-planning taking place during that same action, are aspects of the same planning activity, taking place in different timescales (see Sect. 7). Re-planning can also take place when the climber rests on the wall and is not actively moving. This case is also a case of enactive planning, as even when the climber has temporarily stopped moving on the wall, that pause is still a meaningful part of the ongoing climbing activity (and the act of climbing), as it involves sensorimotor and kinesthetic processes, and may involve gestures such as marking.

  25. 25.

    Brand and de Oliveira (2017) acknowledge that "calibration" and "recalibration" have been used interchangeably "because they are thought to be similar processes of scaling information to perception and action" (p. 55). However, they opt for a more specific notion of recalibration as occurring "only after a disturbance in either perception or action renders the perception–action link inaccurate, thereby initiating the rescaling of that link (rearrangement). For example, when a player’s throwing requires an updated scaling of the perceptual-motor coupling due to fatigue" (ibid., p. 55). While it is an open question whether the period of rest, and exploration of the rock, occurs due to a "disturbance" of the climber such as fatigue, recalibration can still be seen as a useful concept to make sense of enactive re-planning of the route, as it captures the affective dimension of the interaction dynamics as emphasized by the enactivist approach to cognition.

  26. 26.

    Thanks to the anonymous reviewer for this insightful challenge.

  27. 27.

    It might also be contested that planning does not reflect the co-adaptation process or the the individual-environment coupling, because it refers to an asymmetric relationship between the individual and the environment (thanks to the anonymous reviewer for this insight). However, organism-environment coupling is asymmetric to begin with. Human agents have more possibilities for action on their environments than the environments have on them. Consider Malafouris' (2008) example of the potter and his clay, who dynamically co-constitute the act of pottery. Even though the state of the clay makes a difference to how the potter responds to it, it is clear that the potter has more power over the clay than vice versa. In the case of rock climbing, prior dispositions, skills, but also current moods and affect (e.g., being rested), influence to what extent the affordances are found "inviting" or "soliciting" our actions (see Rucińska 2017).

  28. 28.

    "During route previewing, climbers might simulate how to grasp each hold and sequences of holds, to find the route. Whilst simulating climbers move along the climbing wall to look at the hold shape from different points of view (2017, p. 3).

  29. 29.

    "Vitally, [corporate imaginings] generate and do not merely replicate: they expand performers’ personal kinetic repertoires (PKRs)—patternings of ‘owned’ movements commensurate in depth and breadth with skills. In fact, this generative facet is what inspires and precedes [eidetic imaginings]. In these ways, [corporate imaginings] are more fundamental than [eidetic imaginings] or conventional views of the imagination" (ibid, p. 97).

  30. 30.

    Stukenbrock (2017) has also captured this phenomenon with the concept intercoporeal imagining in self-defence training, where the participants were observed to kinesthetically align with jointly imagined bodies.

  31. 31.

    This is also consistent with Ryle's take to imagination as an act that does not involve an "inner" process that occurs in the head that must be prior to the imaginative act like pretend play. See Ryle (1949), chapter 8.

  32. 32.

    A version of this question has been posited by Boschker et al. (2002b), where the authors look at differences between the effects of real actions and imagined actions, or actions involving movement execution vs. movement imagery (described as imagining action possibilities), on subsequent motor behaviors. These authors hypothesized that participants engaging in movement imagery that lacked access to action-evoked information experienced modulated preferences for action (p. 789). Thanks to the anonymous reviewer for highlighting this point.

  33. 33.

    One potential answer might focus on the fact that enactive take to mental imagery shows that mental imaginings, even those taking place without explicit action, are rooted in motor processes and activate neural substrates of movement, which can make them relevant to improving explicit motor performances in climbing.

  34. 34.

    To count as mental representations, affordances and corporeal imaginings would have to have contents that satisfy truth, correctness or accuracy conditions of satisfaction. Neither affordances nor corporeal imaginings fulfil these criteria. Affordances do not specify correct ways of engaging with the environment. One cannot go wrong in acting on affordances, one just acts on various affordances. Similarly, corporeal imagining grounded in an ongoing bodily activity does sufficiently count as a form of contentless sensory imagining. They are "enactive and non-representational in the sense that, whether propositionally or even formally, there are no conditions of truth, functionality or veridicality that need obtain" (Ilundáin-Agurruza 2017, pp. 93–94).

  35. 35.

    "Planning right after the climb" refers to the idea that climbers sometimes also engage in route-post-viewing (thanks to the anonymous reviewer for this point). It could be seen as meaningful part of the climbing activity when it is followed directly after the completing of the climb and is still part of the same event or competition. However, as not all post-viewing activities are done with the intention of re-planning the climb in the future (some post-viewing is done simply for the sake of contemplation or analysis of the accomplished climb in detachment of the activity), they need not always be seen as meaningful aspects of the climbing activity. Drawing a sharp distinction between when the climbing process begins and ends is needed to specify if post-viewing activities can be meaningfully counted as enactive planning activities.


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I would like to thank Erik Myin and Martin Weichold as well as two anonymous reviewers for comments on the earlier version of this paper.


This work was made possible thanks to Research Foundation - Flanders (FWO) grant “Enactive Approach to Pretending” [12J0419N].

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Rucińska, Z. Enactive planning in rock climbing: recalibration, visualization and nested affordances. Synthese (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-021-03025-7

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  • Rock climbing
  • Planning
  • Enactivism
  • Affordances
  • Visualization
  • Ryle