Wednesday, November 12, 2008

FIREWALKING:A Theory Based on Biofeedback and Variable Set Point

Reviewer: Liesel Deppe

FIREWALKING:A Theory Based on Biofeedback and Variable Set Points by Yu-Wen Shaw

Summary: This is a paper that Yu-Wen Shaw wrote for a class at Bryn Mawr University in 2000. The author theorizes about why people can walk over a bed of hot coals successfully, i.e. not sustain any injuries. She puts forward two hypotheses: biofeedback and variable set points, focusing on the former.

Variable Set Points: The phenomenon of walking on hot coals can be explained by the various set points in our brains. In biology, most processes are governed by maintaining equilibrium. The various points of biological equilibrium can also be found in our own bodies: for example regulating body temperature in the hypothalamus, which varies amongst animals. This also explains why certain animals can survive winter temperatures, while humans may freeze in those same conditions, or why people tremble when they have a fever. A fever causes the body to re-establish lower and higher set points. Thus, perhaps it is possible for firewalkers to reset their body temperatures and not sustain injury.

Biofeedback: Biofeedback is a "a method for learned control of physiological responses of the body" Psychologists use biofeedback to help patients with anxiety, and it has also been applied in pain relief. Generally, people use instruments to monitor body behaviour: EMG for muscle tension, skin temperature, brainwaves (EEG) and respiration (breathing techniques). While these are sophisticate methods, it is thought that perhaps firewalkers developed their own way to combine biofeedback and variable feedback to empower themselves to walk on hot coals. Firewalkers need to be psychologically prepared to endure the heat and raise their internal thermal set point in order to tolerate the heat. Neurologically some input signals may be prevented from firing in the brain, hence not pain. This would also explain why some people feel more pain than others.

Review: I found this paper very interesting, but rather short, both in length and information. The points are set out clearly and logically, however I question the resources the author used. Most of the sources seemed to be internet-based and no longer active.

Personal Response: Having grown up in Durban, South Africa, where one would find a large population of Indians, I was aware of the spiritual practice of firewalking amongst the Hindu Indians. Recently, it occurred to me that perhaps there was something brain-related to this, i.e. the power of the mind (brain). A search online elicited numerous pages, but nothing particularly scholarly in nature, even in the medical databases.

I do believe in the power of the mind, constantly striving to improve it- - even though I probably never attempt to walk on hot coals. In addition to being a spiritual experience, I think firewalking can be viewed as a powerful example of the mind at work.

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