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The Neurological Side of Firewalking

AndyMittelman's picture

“There’s no logical explanation.”
    -Ron Sato, MD
    Stanford Medical School, Burns & Plastic Surgery

    Firewalking, or coalwalking as it is also known, is the practice of walking a short distance on a bed of hot ambers. This ceremonial tradition, which has recently spurred widespread interest in the mind-body connection, induces a sense of euphoric achievement. Firewalking has served as a cultural ritual, and for many societies throughout history has acted as a rite of passage indicative of great personal and spiritual maturity (6). In its newer commercialized state, firewalking is practiced as a form of corporate team-building wherein co-workers bond over each other’s success. While skeptics are quick to point out the possible thermodynamic explanation of firewalking (the “conduction hypothesis”), the exact neurological and mental aspects are less well known. On first glance, it seems ridiculous that someone could walk on hot coals without charring their flesh or experiencing great pain. By taking a closer look at the neurobiological element of the firewalk, we may be able to more fully understand this bizarre phenomenon.

    A firewalk involves extensive preparation, wherein wood is burned to a charred ashen state and the coal bed is churned at a temperature of approximately 1200-1500 degrees Farenheit (7). Exposure to this temperature would normally result in severe burns and neurological damage. Even without direct contact with a conducting element, this extreme heat would likely cause great pain and discomfort. Despite this, injuries are rare and most walkers report an extremely positive experience. Firewalkers are able to avoid injury to the feet and legs, and also do not report any pain. How could this be the case?

    There are two mysterious elements to the firewalk. Firstly, how does the walker manage to not burn the flesh of their feet? Secondly, how do they not feel pain? These are two distinct issues, although they are likely related (if the walker can avoid peripheral tissue damage, they may not experience pain). Many experts indicate that building up self-confidence is the most important aspect of the preparation (3). In the preparatory period, the firewalker achieves a state of focused relaxation, wherein blood flow to their feet is increased. The result is that heat can be rapidly whisked away and the flesh does not char.

    When a walker is not in the correct psychological state, peripheral capillaries are constricted and heat is unable to be properly whisked away from the foot soles (5). This happens when the walker is not confident; they tense up and thereby reduce blood flow to the periphery. It is important to know that people have occasionally been burned during firewalks. In these cases, there is nothing different about the fire itself. The occasional injury suggests that the key variable is this mental preparation, not the conductivity of the coals or the heat of the ash (5).

    Skeptics most frequently challenge the legitimacy of firewalking on the basics of thermodynamic physics. Heat is transferred from the coals to the feet via conduction. Both ash and the foot sole are poor conductors so the heat quickly dissipates and does not burn the flesh. Imagine a cake fresh out of the oven. Touching the cake will not burn you but touching the baking pan certainly will. The cake, like the ashen coals, is a poor conductor despite being very hot. (4) Tolly Burkan, founder of the Firewalking Institute of Research and Education (F.I.R.E.), refuted this argument by walking unburned across a heated metal grill (an excellent conductor), illustrating that the properties of the surface are largely irrelevant (4). He teaches that a successful firewalk is the product of your central nervous system changing its normal condition. As Burkan explains, “If you are relaxed with your decision [to walk on fire], you are in a certain biochemical state…If the body is tense, that is an indication of thought processes that will interfere with the mechanisms employed by the body to protect itself.” (3) In this sense, firewalkers are stimulating naturally-existent defense mechanisms to help absorb the heat.

    But this still does not explain how the walker avoids sustaining severe pain. Walkers say that the mental preparation is essential to ready the nervous system for the sensory onslaught. The mental preparation for the walk is generally divided into 4 Paths (1). These 4 Paths, (The Devotion, The Power of Will, The Power of Imagination, and The Clearance of Presence), help the walker to concentrate his/her energy on building confidence for a successful walk. The preparation is frequently described as “unidirectional,” because it is totally focused on reaching the other side unharmed. To this end, walkers imagine a dual nature for themselves, both picturing cold moss under their feet and also embracing the touch of coals. As a result, they are in a state of “neither-neither,” wherein they are not entirely in the present nor in the imagination (1). In this sense, they seem to be distancing themselves from the immediate sensory inputs.

    I would suggest that firewalking might be explained through some of the concepts we have been discussing. When someone gets nauseated in a car or on a boat, it is due to the incongruence of their nervous system expectations and the sensory input. In other words, corollary discharge signals setup an expectation for sensory input and then when they are not met, the person perceives that as discomfort. Perhaps the same mechanism explains how someone is able to turn off the sensation of pain. Pain is the non-correspondence of sensory input and corollary discharge signals. Therefore, if one could consciously alter these corollary discharge signals, they could theoretically turn off the normal pain sensation. Therefore, the secret of firewalking may lie in the alteration of corollary discharge signals by the i-function.

    If a walker could somehow adjust these expectations, it is theoretically possible that they could even undergo other painful events. Given two people with the same activity in sensory neurons, is it possible that they have different experiences? Yes, we know that sensory input is interpreted differently. Therefore, is it conceivable that because of other complicating factors, the nervous system interprets a certain set of inputs as pain in one person and not pain in another? This is also likely. All people do not gain pleasure from the same sensory inputs, and we do not feel pain in the same manner. To this end, we uniquely interpret sensory inputs.
    Perhaps this is what is going on during the period of mental preparation. In order to successfully cross the fire, one needs to go into a special state of mind. During this mental preparation, maybe the i-function is preparing the nervous system for a different interpretation of sensory inputs. Consider the example of long distance runners. These athletes are able to push themselves through great amounts of physical discomfort, and even describe a sensation of “runner’s high.” After running 10 miles, running does not get any easier or less uncomfortable. Rather, the nervous system may be adjusting the way it interprets sensory inputs. What is initially perceived as pain is later perceived as euphoric energy. This perception—the “I can run forever” feeling—appears similar to the experience of firewalkers, who report no pain and only a sense of enthusiastic confidence.

    On this same site ten years ago, Yun-Wen Shaw suggested that a biofeedback mechanism may also be involved. Specifically, if walkers can adjust their internal heat set point, then they would not feel the heat of the hot ash beneath them (2). Take the example of a fever. A sick person may feel cold and even shiver although their body is actually at an elevated temperature. Their thermal setpoint is adjusted upwards such that they do not feel warmth even though they may have a dramatically increased body temperature. If a walker could similarly readjust this setpoint, it is possible that they do not feel the overwhelming heat. Shaw’s hypothesis is somewhat similar to the one I suggested above; by conscious adaptation of the nervous system we are able to alter the interpretation of sensory inputs. I would be curious to know more about the feasibility of consciously adjusting thermal setpoints. It this were indeed possible, humans might theoretically be able to survive in various extreme environments.

    While the physics of firewalking have been thoroughly debated, the neurological aspects of this phenomenon are less clear. How is it that firewalkers can avoid burning their feet? Perhaps of more interest, how do they not feel pain? It is clear that we have control over the interpretations of our sensory inputs. Each one of us interprets these inputs in different ways. It is possible that firewalkers use mental preparation and focus to alter the normal interpretation of their sensory inputs so they do not feel pain from the fire. The extensive mental preparation may help them change the normal interpretation. Until I try it myself, I may not ever know for sure.


(2) /bb/neuro/neuro00/web2/Shaw.html






(8) Neurobiology class notes/discussion, Professor Paul Grobstein, March/April 2010



Serendip Visitor's picture

Response to Bhuvi Smith

Hi All, since my last post I have had the good fortune of both working closely with Tolly Burkan, the creator of the MODERN firewalk and also managed to spend half a day with Ernest Rossi, profound writer on Hypnosis AND Neuroscience.

Since my experiences with firewalking and physical control have now expanded, I use as a demonstration piece the piercing of my body with needles whilst awake and feeling blissful, and losing no blood. It is just an expanded way of turning off the signals or confusing them, but also in pre-emptive state management.

To answer Bhuvi's question, there is no direct correlation between life change and firewalking. But if you go to a seminar, with an experienced presenter and connect fear with (say) procrastination and accept that that the firewalk will be fear-inducing, then if you are successful in walking, people's lives often change. If you just do it whilst drunk, and as a party trick, my suggestion is that NOT MUCH will change. In the course that Tolly created and that I run in the UK, people change. Massively. For the better.

Bhuvi Smith's picture


This is something new which I have come across and pretty interesting. Does fire walk has any positive effects on one’s life?

Steve Consalvez's picture


Hello Andy,

In nearly 20 years of firewalking experience, this scientific discussion, is probably the most balanced I have read. Because you state that people do get burned during firewalks, which they do, this forces us to look at the whole phenomenon.

I would be interested in the Caltech study, because this appeared to come from a position of 'you won't burn'. What about if we came from a position of 'you will'! The problem is that in undertaking an experiment taking this position, we would need to prepare the subjects negatively, and it might turn into another Milgram or Zimbardo scenario. There would probably be serious ethics issues.

I have seen many people get light to serious blisters in my time, and the one consistent factor was that they all had either skeptical thoughts or simply thoughts about the firewalk being 'nothing' instead of the real radiant heat it produced, such that when they walked on, the sudden heat experience panicked them. The one other area, is when experienced walkers simply 'don't feel right'. Of course, none of this can be effectively measured.

What was interesting about Mythbusters of course (we at FIRE, see , set this up), was that the walker the next day, burned badly, and he had no preparation by us, only the Mythbusters team. Their explanation: he walked on the coals, the wrong way!! Complete tosh (British saying).

We at the Institute would love to put on a Skeptics firewalk, the problem is randomisation. I think your explanation is probably accurate, it certainly is in accord with some of Bruce Lipton's findings about the mind's ability to affect cellular and biological processes through imagination and will.

If I can help in providing resources for any endeavour to test this, please contact me at and I will be more than happy to assist.

Paul Grobstein's picture

breaking apart fire=burn=pain

I too am intrigued, and think it is indeed important to think about two distinct questions: the impact of the heat on flesh, and the impact on brain/perception of pain.  Given the known involvement of sensory nervous system activity on the interpretation of input signals, it is certainly conceivable to me that people could get sensory input that would be interpreted as painful by some people and not experience pain themselves.  I share a sense that accounting for the impact of heat on flesh is a bigger mystery, but can imagine some combination of motoneuron (stepping character/patterns) and autonomic output  activity (circulatory, perhaps other metaoblic regulation) that might begin to account for that.

Regardless, I think realizing that the phenomenon has two distinct parts is itself an important point.  Behavior is, from the nervous system's point of view, not one thing (fire=burn=pain) but a number of dissociable elements each of which may vary to some degree independently of the others.  Maybe there is actually a "logical explanation" in terms of the nervous system not only for firewalking but other things that might otherwise seem to have "no logical explanation"?

Schmeltz's picture

Interesting paper.  Helped me

Interesting paper.  Helped me to better understand how we can alter our expectations in order to generate a euphoric, positive experience for something that presumably would generate pain.  Definitely helps me to better understand the "runner's high" phenomena and why I never really experience any pain during physical activities that require deep focus.  However, while I can buy the whole not feeling pain phenomena, it is still confusing to me why the feet do not burn, blister, etc. The biology behind this phenomena is quite incredible and I am wondering the extent to which our minds can not only escape the feeling of pain, but avert the physical resultants of pain altogether i.e. burning flesh.  I was also wondering if there is a particular technique that the walkers learn to traverse the coals? Perhaps there is some proper way to walk so as to decrease the chances of burning the bottoms of the feet.  Do they walk more on their heels?  Is their a certain walking speed at which they should proceed?      

AndyMittelman's picture

 I agree with you, it is hard

 I agree with you, it is hard to understand why they don't burn their feet. I think this is the most mysterious part of it. I was pretty convinced by the conductino hypothesis until I learned about walking on the grille. 

Mythbusters (the Discovery Channel show) did an episode on it and showed that yes, there are certain methods of walking that may help. For example, walkers should go at a slow and steady pace and "be light on their feet" (I'm not entirely sure what they mean by this).