Walking on fire: feat of mind?

Walking on fire: feat of mind?

William J. McCarthy


If est and LifeSpring are fast-food therapies, firewalking is equivalent to a TV dinner. Thousands of people have paid as much as $125 to attend evening-long seminars culminating in a walk on hot coals. According to the advertising flyers, these seminars will train participants to do the “impossible,’ namely, to use the power of their minds to prevent their feet from getting burned. More generally, they promise to transform firewalkers’ fears into power, to instill in them the ability to accomplish almost anything they set out to do.

Two of us, a plasma physicist and a social/ health psychologist, were intrigued by these claims because they seemed inconsistent with our knowledge of both physics and psychology. As part of our initial investigation we both walked on fire, but only one of us did so with the benefit of a training seminar. The seminar trainee received a small blister following his firewalk, whereas the uninstructed firewalker walked the coals twice unscathed.

Subsequently, we conducted our own firewalk with a bed of coals hundreds of degrees hotter than the one used at the seminar. In front of a large crowd and several TV cameras, 75 people walked on our hot coals without the benefit of any psychological training. None suffered any serious burns.

Although the training did not prevent burns, it was helpful in some respects. The session spanned an entire evening, ending after midnight. The seminar leader directed 80 participants through a series of exercises designed to stimulate self-disclosure, camaraderie and positive thinking. The leader exhorted everyone to shed their fears, to enlarge their expectations and to take action. Deafeningly loud music, dancing and orchestrated backrubs kept participants’ adrenaline levels high. By the time of the firewalk, spirits were high and most people appeared eager to accept the challenge.

Relatively little of the seminar, however, was actually devoted to preparing people for the firewalk. Only toward the end were explicit instructions given: 1) Strongly believe in your ability to succeed, 2) breathe forcibly and rapidly, 3) focus your eyes on a spot in the sky, not on the coals, 4) walk confidently and rigidly erect at a normal pace, 5) overload any possible negative internal dialogues by chanting a mantra (suggested mantra: “cool moss’) and 6) wipe your feet on the wet grass at the end of the 8-foot bed of coals.

Although the instructions were not necessary to prevent burns, following them could reduce the sensation of heat or pain. The coals under our feet felt like hot peanut shells, but neither of us felt any pain. Still, people who suffer from medically untreatable pain often receive similar instructions. And psychologists and those who have used the Lamaze method of childbirth know that distraction techniques such as visual imagery, physical activity, controlled breathing and chanting a mantra can help reduce the amount of pain some people report.

Although the seminar may have boosted the participants’ self-esteem and prepared them not to feel pain if they were burned, it did not make the soles of their feet any less vulnerable to heat than before. Principles of physics can explain participants’ success more accurately than can anything attributable to psychology.

The secret to firewalking lies in the distinction between heat energy and temperature. Different materials at the same temperature contain different quantities of heat energy and have different capacities to conduct heat energy from warmer regions to coller ones. When we are baking a cake, for example, the air, the cake and the cake pan in the oven can all be heated to 325 degrees, but the air has relatively little heat compared with the cake pan. That’s why we needn’t fear sticking our hand into the air of a hot oven but we know that we cannot touch the cake pan because our skin will be seared in an instant. Firewalking is based on the same idea. The embers are light and fluffy and relatively poor conductors of heat. Although they may be at a fairly high temperature, the embers do not contain as much energy as we might expect. So long as we do not spend too much time on them, our feet will probably not get hot enough to burn. And any additional insulation between the embers and our feet, such as water, dirt and thick calluses, also proves helpful.

Even though the participants’ success at firewalking is a matter of physics and not psychology, you may ask why we would try to disabuse them of their erroneous beliif that some special strength of mind is responsible. After all, what harm can there be in people feeling better about themselves, more willing to take on “impossible’ challenges?

One reason is that firewalking is not risk-free. At a recent seminar, one woman walking with canes moved too slowly across a bed of coals and had to be rushed to the hospital with severe burns. A number of people, including seminar leaders, have found hot embers lodged between their toes, causing serious burns before they were removed. In short, the physical risks involved in firewalking outweigh the possible temporary psychological benefit that many people appear to enjoy.

A more important reason is that firewalking is used by some seminar leaders to support other claims they make. We were told that about one-fifth of the participants of one seminar were so impressed by their firewalking experience that they plunked down $375 for a weekend seminar on “neurolinguistic programming.’

During the firewalking seminar that one of us attended, participants were told that neurolinguistic programming as practiced by the seminar leader has cured people of such intractable problems as drug addiction and arthritis in fantastically short periods–sometimes in minutes. Despite these extraordinary claims, no scientific evidence was offered.

The firewalk seminars that we have seen advertised promise remarkable and enduring self-improvement in less than six hours. At best, these seminars probably offer temporary psychological uplift to those who muster the courage to walk–and avoid getting burned. For those interested in lasting self-improvement, we recommend taking college courses or reading books on physics or psychology. It is far better to learn than to burn.

COPYRIGHT 1986 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group