BLOCKING PAIN, Part II: The mystery of walking on fire

We will once again be fielding question for Dr. Mailis Gagon who is the Director of the Comprehensive Pain Program and Senior Investigator at the Krembil Neuroscience Centre. If you have any questions you would like to ask our pain specialist, please write to us at [email protected].

I am continuing my path to explore “altered states of consciousness” and the way they can “block pain”.

In some parts of the world, people are sometimes submitted to intense trauma, but they do not seem to suffer from pain. In some regions (such as India, Middle East, the Far East, Africa, among North America’s First nations, and even in some European countries) tolerating and enduring pain has a totally different meaning. Pain is considered demonstration of faith, readiness to “become an adult” or proof of divinity. Local people are submitted voluntarily to “rituals” and procedures that may seriously hurt the body. These are things that frighten and amaze the westerners while at the same time they challenge and provoke scientists who struggle to understand the how and why.

One of the phenomena that has triggered my curiosity for years was fire-walking since it is even practiced in some remote Greek villages. This is not a new phenomenon; it dates back thousands of years. Twelve hundred years before the birth of Christ, we have written accounts of two Brahman priests in India who were walking over burning coals to prove which one was the most faithful. Later on, around the time of Christ, Strabo, a Greek geographer described priestesses walking over glowing coals, with the contemporary belief (shared by the Persians), that the women were not burnt because they were protected by the Gods. Even Isaiah (passage 43:2) makes reference in the Bible to those who do not get burnt if they believe in God. In South East Asia, inhabitants of the island of Fiji nowadays still perform lots of fire-walking ceremonies, and even managed to take their displays “on the road” in the mid-70s with 37 hotel appearances in Canada and Hawaii.

The question is: Do we have a scientific explanation behind the ability to walk on burning coals and not get burnt? Dr. Price, a British scientist, published his detailed observations in 1935 in a prestigious scientific journal. He documented his encounters with a kashmiri Indian who was had crossed a fire pit filled with hot coals by taking 4 steps in less than 4 seconds. The calculations showed that the man stepped on the burning coals half a second or less with each foot (not enough time to develop blisters).

Scientists sometimes like to confirm their hypotheses by submitting themselves to the condition they study. Dr. Thomas, who also published his observations in another prestigious science journal in 1936, did just this when he himself walked on flaming hot embers in plain socks. He reported that his feet were protected because of a number of factors (a cold bath he had taken before walking on coals which made his feet cold, the ash covering the embers and the type of stones he walked on).