Today I did some reading on the science behind firewalking.
What is firewalking? Just like it sounds, firewalking means walking barefoot across glowing, red-hot coals. Prior to last week, I thought firewalking was an ancient tribal custom of some sort, no longer practiced except perhaps in geographically and culturally remote places, during religious or spiritual ceremonies. I actually hadn’t given it a lot of thought prior to last Saturday, which is the day I myself walked across glowing red-hot coals.
Subsequent research turned up some interesting bits of history. Various people have postulated that the Leidenfrost Effect prevents firewalkers from getting burned, because moisture on the sole turns to vapor and prevents the skin from contacting the hot coals. This seemed reasonable to me, until I felt hot coals crunching under my feet. I’ll tell you this: I made contact.
Tolly Burkan, who is apparently responsible for introducing firewalking as a modern ritual, tells the story of physicist Jearl Walker, who was so convinced that the Leidenfrost Effect would protect him that he felt it was impossible to get burned on a firewalk: After severely injuring himself on a coalbed, he lost faith in this theory.
Walker initially explained his injury by noting that he had lost his fear, and therefore didn’t perspire sufficiently. My story is different: he believed that he would not be safe, and therefore he immediately became unsafe.
Another theory debunked by Burkan is that firewalking is safe because wood coal conducts heat poorly. Physicist Bernard Leikind postulated that although humans can clearly walk across a bed of coals, it would be impossible to walk across a red-hot metal grill. To disprove this claim, several members of Burkan’s group walked barefoot across Leikind’s superheated metal grill, unharmed. Burkan notes, “The grill was so red-hot, the weight of people walking on it bent the softened metal and left impressions of the firewalkers’ feet on the grill.” So even if wood coal does conduct heat poorly, there is clearly something more going on.
What fascinates me most about all this is the lengths people go to to prove that the likeliest explanation is not true. For me, the most likely explanation is that the mind has more control over the body than most people believe (and as Richard Bach said, if you argue for your limitations, you get to keep them!). Skeptics take heart — the fact that this is true may be due to science, but if so it is science we don’t yet understand.
But no matter what explanation you believe, one fact remains: you need to come to terms with your fears before you walk barefoot into a fire.