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

Dr. Fonseca, Professor of Physiology at Colombo University in Sri Lanka, confirmed the old observation of time-limited contact between the hot coals and the feet of those who were not burnt and stressed that one does not need “altered state of mind” for protection from the burns. The faithful usually do not like explanations that undermine their perception of divine and Fonseca met the wrath of the devotees of Skanda, the God of Kataragama, who believe that fire-walking is a supernatural phenomenon and that it is the God who protects the firewalkers from injury. Scientists have continued with more studies to unravel the mystery. A German psychiatrist from Tubingen, Dr. Larbig, visited Langadas, a small village of Northern Greece, with his team, as well as other places where fire-walking was practiced in Germany between 1978 and 1980. The researchers studied the brain waves recorded from the brains of both beginners and experienced firewalkers. While the beginner fire-walkers slipped into slower brain oscillations (indicative of alteration of their state of mind,) this did not happen in the more experienced fire-walkers. In other words, while an “altered state of mind” may be associated with the act of fire-walking, it is not a necessary prerequisite.

Westerners subsequently sought to take advantage of the commercial potential of fire walking. Motivational speakers have staged numerous “coal strolls” (an example is the one reported in the Sunday Times of London, England, in 1985) to convince people that the mind can control both pain and responses to injury, while they attempt to introduce them “to powers they never knew they had”. The interested reader can find both bibliography and details in my book BEYOND PAIN (Mailis Gagnon and Israelson 2003) in regards to all the phenomena I am describing in this and other articles.

The truth is that through fire-walking rituals, many of those who participate feel elated by conquering both the fear of fire-walking and, in their minds, many other personal fears (a far-reaching experience). Some of them even achieve the aforementioned change in their brain waves observed in German experiments. The facts remain that no “altered state of mind” can save the fire-walkers from getting burnt. Although obeying the laws of physics definitely can!

Angela Mailis Gagnon, MD, MSc, FRCPC(PhysMed)
Director, Comprehensive Pain Program,
Senior Investigator, Krembil Neuroscience Centre
Toronto Western Hospital,
Chair ACTION Ontario

Keywords: pain