It’s often been said that parkour changes the way you look at your surroundings. You might observe features of the environment that would perhaps go unnoticed to the non-traceur: the gap between two walls, the texture of a surface, a pipe or ledge just within reach. Where some people see a set of stairs or a walkway, you see a series of moves to get from one side to the other. The increased feeling of freedom and fun that accompanies this way of seeing our surroundings changes our interactions with the environment and our ability to move through it.

But the effect of practicing parkour may extend even further. Last year, US-based academics Jessica Witt, J.E.T. Taylor and Mila Sugovic tested this experimentally. Their findings, reported in the journal Perception, make for interesting reading. Perception is typically defined in cognitive psychology as the interpretation of stimuli reaching the brain through our senses (sight, sound, touch etc). Depending on how we interpret our body’s sensory inputs, what we sense may not be the same as what we perceive. The old Indian story of the blind men and the elephant illustrates this, where each man touching an elephant perceives something different: a tree from its trunk, a rope from its tail and so on. Similarly, people may ‘sense’ the same thing in a similar way, but perceive it completely differently.

In their experiment, Witt, Taylor and Sugovic tested a group of traceurs against non-traceurs (‘novices’) with the obstacle of a wall. Each person was asked how confident they were that they could climb the wall unaided, and then was asked to estimate the height of the wall. Traceurs consistently perceived the height of the walls as lower than they actually were, and novices as higher than they were. These differences correlated with the individual’s confidence about climbing the wall. So, if you are more confident about climbing the wall, you perceive it as lower than it really is. The researchers made sure that the traceurs and novices were approximately the same age and height, to be confident that these factors were not influencing their results.

These findings provide further evidence for a theory knows as Action-Modulated Perception (AMP). This suggests that a person’s ability to act within the environment changes their perception of it. So, if you feel fit, strong and know you can jump a certain height or distance, your interpretation of the sensory information coming into your brain from all around you is changed, and you effectively see obstacles as smaller and easier to negotiate than a non-traceur. This counters some previously held ideas in psychology that a persons’ perception of their environment is somehow objective and independent of their behaviour in that environment. Parkour is helping psychologists to push the boundaries of their understanding, just as we try to push the boundaries of our own abilities every time we train.