BLOCKING PAIN, Part III: Piercing the flesh

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].

Due to the numerous requests she has been receiving, Dr.Mailis Gagnon will be creating her own website where you will have the chance to learn more about her, her practice as well as her work. It will be up shortly and the address will be:

While we know that fire walking does not necessitate a special state of mind, there is no question that there is a lot more out there that our conventional western way of thinking cannot explain. Have you ever seen an Indian fakir lying comfortably in a bed of nails or sticking daggers through his flesh? I have. As a youngster back home in Athens, Greece, I never forgot the sight and the performance of an Indian man who had come to display his act in the middle of a park, at the foot of the famous monument of Acropolis. Many years later, as a physician and inquisitive observer, when confronted by things and patients experiences I could not easily explain, I had to realize that the mind was a power to reckon with. The fakir memories came back to me and led me to search for the science behind these phenomena.

The German psychiatrist, Dr. Larbig, the same one who investigated fire-walking, recorded a detailed study of a 48 year old Mongolian fakir. The man was doing fascinating (and equally gruesome) things to his flesh: pierce his tongue with a sword, insert long needles in his arms and stick knives into his neck, without showing pain and without much bleeding. He had trained himself since he was a toddler to fix his gaze to a steady point and concentrate without blinking. He spent years training to perfect his performance, by following a routine: hours of deep meditation (we’ll talk about this later), followed by his performance which he would execute while staring ahead at a fixed point.

Larbig and his team took blood from the fakir’s veins as well as fluid from his spinal cord to study neurochemicals he may have shed into his body before the act. They also hooked him up with wires to measure his “brain waves” the way they had done for the fire-walkers. The blood work showed high levels of adrenaline (the chemical that gives the head rush to thrill seekers), but not high levels of the body’s own pain killers, the endorphins.

The man’s protection from pain did indeed come from “an altered state of consciousness”. He had switched his “alpha brain waves” associated with our conscious mind when we are alert and pay attention to our world around us, to “theta waves”, slower brain waves, seen in people who get deeply into creative thinking, dissociating themselves from the conscious world around them.