Biology 202
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FIREWALKING:A Theory Based on Biofeedback and Variable Set Points

Yun-Wen Shaw

Firewalking, more commonly known as walking on hot coals, was once viewed as a paranormal phenomena: cultish, mystical, and esoteric. Today, this phenomena has become fairly well understood in its physical aspects (6) . But in terms of any neurological explanation, there still remains a lot of superstition and speculation.

The practice of walking on hot coals has long existed on the fringe of inner healing mind-over-matter movements where walkers claim to find spirituality and empowerment atop 1200-degree coals aspects (2). How can firewalking be possible? After all, aluminum engine blocks are poured at 1100 degrees Fahrenheit, 100 degrees below the average temperature of the coals used in firewalking. Electric burners on a rangetop only reach 600 degrees. Human skin chars at 325 degrees and second degree burns occur at 160 degrees (8). Physically, we know that 1200 degrees is more than enough to char any flesh. Even the air that rises above the coals will singe the hair on your arms from a good distance. However, the temperature of the coals is only one of several factors that influence the amount of heat that is transferred to the feet, or the degree by which the temperature of the soles will consequently rise (1). Many firewalking skeptics believe that the foot absorbs relatively little heat from the embers with each step because of the poor conducting properties of coal. But what is the role of the brain in this phenomenon?

Most sources elucidate the feasibility of firewalking with various physical analyses of the hot coal bed or by a spiritual examination of the walker. The physical analysis explains how the body is prevented from injury, but does not explain how the body withstands the heat and likely pain. The spirituality that most people present as their explanation is the closest that we will get to a true answer. From there, the rest will have to come from speculation, and I will implement my own theory.

There are said to be Four Paths of Fire that one must take to heart (and mind) before they may walk on flames. These "paths" call for the walker to "trust his spirits or his deity" and "concentrate the full emotional potential of the will to reach the other end without problems" (5). The uni-directional nature of this guide aims to focus the mind on the belief that it is possible to walk the fire without being burned (8). The thoughts a person has is excellence feedback as to their degree of focused intention as they walk. But what is entailed in this form of thought? The insistent belief many hold that they can not be burned is simply not true. While many have come across the flames unharmed, there have also been a number of cases where the walker has suffered burns and blisters. This leads to the belief that burns are likely to be somehow caused from inside the person rather than by the fire. In these studied cases, the temperature, dimensions, and material of the firewalk is fixed and never changes the only variable factor is the psycho-emotional state of the individual walkers. Many firewalkers have testified to this, having walked the fire successfully many times over, then one day felt that it was "not [their] day," and it would be on that day that they feel the pain when they took a step onto the hot coals (8).

One hypothesis to explain this phenomenon lies in the concept of variable set points in our brain. As in all biology fields, we find that most processes are largely based upon the concept of maintaining a state of homeostasis, or equilibrium. These various points of biological equilibrium can be considered our bodys "set points." An example of such a set point is body temperature as regulated by the hypothalamus. The variable property of these set points explains how squirrels can survive in freezing winter temperatures and why people tend to shudder when they are feverish; these conditions that the body endures causes the hypothalamus to re-establish respectively lower and higher set points (11).

Another hypothesis, the one I will focus on, lies in the role of a possible biofeedback mechanism that is the core of the mental preparation needed to successfully walk across the bed of hot coals. The term biofeedback was first coined by the Biofeedback society of American in 1969, and is defined as "a method for learned control of physiological responses of the body" (7). A joint endeavor between experimental psychology and physiology soon ensued, and it became clear that certain dramatic gains could be achieved by using psychological techniques on patients with medical problems (7). If psychological techniques could potentially be used to improve medical conditions, then it seems very feasible that a similar technique could be used to allow people to tolerate high temperatures under their feet. At the time of research, scientists held the theory to a high standard, even foreseeing the possibility of people, one day, increasing their level of creativity simply by willing themselves to change their brain wave patterns, or of replacing drug treatments with biofeedback training (4). I doubt that these researchers considered the possibility of their research having been known and utilized for thousands of years, and is implemented in the form of firewalking.

Specialists of a variety of different fields use biofeedback treaments. Psychologists namely use the method to help tense and anxious clients learn to relax. Biofeedback is also known to be able to help patients cope with pain (4). In many ways, the basic concept of the biofeedback method has been used by many people everyday. It is the input of data information causing one to react as an output. For example, we have all weighed ourselves on bathroom scales and taken our own temperatures at some point. Both these devices "feed back" information about our body's condition. Armed with this information, you can take steps you've learned to improve the condition. Another example can be taken from weight loss programs. Most people who resolve to lose weight by way of a dieting program are often more likely to succeed when you believe that you will lose weight (11). The belief that you will not burn yourself when you walk on fire is a similar concept. Similar to the Four Paths of Fire, biofeedback patients must recognize and believe that they can, by their own efforts, remedy some physical ailments (10).

Biofeedback training is defined as "the presentation of information, usually by means of meters, lights, or audtory signals, so that the sunject can become better aware of inside-the-skin behaviors" and thus "learn how to self-regulate the biological process being displayed" (4). The most common forms of biofeedback today make use of instruments used to monitor and display information on such bodily processes as muscle tension (EMG feedback), skin temperature (thermal feedback), brain waves (EEG feedback) and respiration. By being aware of and monitoring this data, patients can adjust their thinking and other mental processes in order to control bodily processes. In some cases, subjects are taught specific methods such as relaxation or imagery, which are believed to also have an impact on bodily functions (7).

I believe that it may be possible that firewalkers developed a way to combine biofeedback and variable feedback methods hundreds of centuries ago, and used this knowledge to empower themselves to walk on flames. The ancient ceremony of walking across burning coals is a sacred art, said to unite human will with spirit fire (3). This strong spiritual context tends to convince partakers that they feel no pain. In this instance, the firewalker needs to be psychologically prepared to endure the heat and heighten their internal thermal set point to tolerate the heat. On a neurological level, I wonder if it is possible to consciously prevent input signals that send pain messages from firing into the central nervous system. If this is indeed a possibility, then it would not seem to be too far-fetched to expect firewalkers to be able to mentally all forms of pain.

Pain perception is not as simple as everyday experience suggests. Like all other "sensations," the feeling of pain is nothing more than a simple neurological input. What we "feel" is completely dependent upon what is registered on our input-output pathways and what signal patterns are sent along those paths. Some people experience a tendency to undergo great pain without any apparent cause while others can experience little or no pain at all despite great injury. Cognitive and emotional factors seem to act as an important factor in the determination of what inputs we receive. A cognitive belief that one has control over the pain seems to reduce the level of pain, or pain-inducing inputs. In contrast, fear seems to increase such input signals (10).

Firewalkers have put forth mystical explanations of why walking on hot coals and flames is possible without serious physical harm for thousands of years to date. However scientists have not yet been able to fully explain this phenomenon with much logical reasoning. They are, as always, chock full of hypotheses and endless theories. So for now, we can only guess.

WWW Sources

1) Firewalking Myth vs Physics

2) Mind over Embers

3) Firewalking

4) What is Biofeedback?

5) The Four Paths of Fire

6) Walking on Hot Coals

7) What is Biofeedback

8)The Firewalk Experience

9) Firewalking homepage

10) A Preliminary Empirical Study of Firewalking

11)Grobstein, Paul, Class Lecture. Neurobiology and Behavior. Bryn Mawr College. February and March 2000