Thursday, February 16, 2012

Man fears no cold, has fire within

You may have seen a recent Columbia commercial (below) showcasing a man who performs all sorts of crazy feats in freezing temperatures and wears only shorts.  In this case, it’s not just another example of a company touting sensational baloney for effect.  This baloney, you see, is real.

Wim Hof is his name, and he has apparently been blowing scientists’ minds and setting Guinness World Records for quite a while now.  In 2009, Hof climbed Mount Kilimanjaro wearing only shorts.  The same year he ran a full marathon above the Arctic Circle, again in just shorts.  He once swam for 80 meters under Arctic ice and made it more than halfway up Mount Everest before a foot injury halted him.  Guess what he was wearing.  Shorts.

He’s not the only person known to have such amazing resistance to cold.  In fact, he’s not currently the greatest “iceman.”  His previous record for continual full-body ice exposure (115 minutes) was broken in 2011 by Jin Songhao of China who stood in a tank of ice for two full hours.

These men are practitioners of a form of meditation called Tummo, which causes the body to generate heat.  According to Hof, he is able to consciously adjust his body temperature with his mind. 

Whenever I hear one of these stories, I find myself in a familiar predicament of belief.  The scientist in me wants to say, “The body’s thermostat is controlled by the non-voluntary parts of the brain.  It can’t be willingly adjusted.”  Randall Munroe, author of the popular webcomic xkcd shares similar sentiments.  On the other hand, the part of me that used to wish for energy-slinging superpowers like Goku’s in Dragonball Z feels differently.  It wants to believe there are secrets locked away in each of our minds just waiting to be discovered.

 Wim Hof’s abilities have indeed been studied, albeit not enough to satisfy either part of my mind.  A study at the University Medical Centre in Nijmegen, Netherlands found that he was able to resist fever, muscle ache and nausea when injected with a toxin that normally causes severe temporary reactions.  He showed higher-than-average levels of a hormone known to inhibit the immune response that would normally cause such reactions.

Before I can rest, I must know whether Hof’s abilities are really under conscious control, or if he is just genetically unusual.  It’s also possible that through physical conditioning he has adjusted naturally flexible traits.  Luckily, the Nijmegen scientists intend to study Hof-like anomalies further.  An ambitious follow-up study seeks to train 10 participants in Hof’s meditation technique and monitor their responses to toxin over time. 

Perhaps in time we will find that Wim Hof is not a superhero – merely a great visionary in self-control as the rest of us have never conceived it.  His mystical techniques could become common practice for anyone who wishes to learn them.  At the very least, we’d all save a bit on heating bills.


  1. This is an interesting topic! I, too, am curious as to whether Hof's abilities are the result of conscious control or not. Either way, meditation seems to efficiently ward off distractions and help a person become more aware of his physical self.

  2. Science Friday had an interesting conversation recently with Mark Williams of Oxford University on Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, which appears to be as useful as drugs in treating depression.