This is a cautionary tale. Not about the dangers inherent in strolling barefoot across something the temperature of a pizza oven, which should be fairly self-evident.

No, an examination of firewalking turns out to be an instructive example of humanity’s irresistible urge to ignore principled rationality in sacrifice to their belief system. But I’m not talking about gullible people swept up by new-age hucksterism, although I don’t deny there’s a lot of delusion involved there, too. I’m talking about scientists and academia, and the rarely-perceived fact that they too, hold a belief system, and that they are sometimes as deleterious of proper, rational inquiry as the charlatans and mystics they seek to debunk.

Firewalking is both ancient in origin and diverse in practice. How diverse? There’s the Anestanarian tradition of orthodox Christians of northern Greece and southern Bulgaria and the Sanghyang Jaran dance in Bali. The Hindu Thimthi ritual is found in India, South Africa, and parts of Asia, while the Hiwatari Matsuri, or ‘Fire Festival’, is celebrated in Japan. Polynesia is littered with various distinct firewalking rituals and the African !Kung tribe use it in healing ceremonies.

As for origins, it either appeared at a single point deep in human history and proceeded to spread across the globe, or arose spontaneously in multiple times and places. Both possibilities suggest that the act is inherently and profoundly alluring to cultures far and wide.

Why Firewalking?

Due to the diversity of its practice, firewalking can’t be said to have a single, specific traditional purpose or meaning. In many cases, however, there are direct connections to the spiritual. Often, only a tribe’s shaman performs the walk, typically as part of a religious ceremony related to the spirits or gods. The purpose in these instances is fairly straightforward. The shaman walking on fire without being hurt is a clear demonstration that supernatural or divine forces are indeed at play. It reinforces the tribe’s belief system and connects its members to the powers that shape their world.

In other cases, it is a ceremony in which tribal members themselves participate, often as a rite-of-passage ceremony. Social theory suggests that these kinds of intensely arousing events that are collectively experienced have a social function. The danger and fear one experiences is shared and witnessed by your community, as is the act of triumph. The event links the personal act of overcoming with the influence of one’s communal group. In other words, extreme rituals can promote prosociality.

Perhaps not a surprise, then, that firewalking as practiced in America is largely the domain of self-help gurus and corporate team-building seminars. It follows script for the modern appropriation of an ancient spiritual ritual, in that a) any original religious/cultural meaning has been discarded, b) there’s money involved, and c) the functional core that made the ritual effective or interesting is kept intact.

How do we do it?

Obviously, there are a variety of practices subsumed under the umbrella of firewalking, but the fundamental gist is: you walk on fire. It wouldn’t seem possible for people to do that without hurting themselves, yet they appear to do it at least some and maybe most of the time. This incongruity is at the heart of firewalking’s impact.

“It wouldn’t seem possible for people to do that without hurting themselves, yet they appear to do it at least some and maybe most of the time. This incongruity is at the heart of firewalking’s impact.”

Traditionally-practiced firewalking has various cultural explanations that invoke supernatural belief systems to explain this. The modern world uses a standard grab-bag of theories that rely on varying degrees of mysticism or unsupported ‘scientistic’ explanations that serve as rationales convincing enough to make people shell out $500 for a weekend empowerment seminar. As we move further away from the new-age age, these explanations have drifted on from invocations of God and the spirit world to more digestible and lucrative themes that imply the tapping of some unseen personal potential or willpower.

What say you, science? Well, there are two primary scientific rationales as to why you don’t see more middle management with blistered feet populating emergency rooms.

First and most notable is that the source of fire is invariably specific. It will be a more-or-less flat, walkable surface of relatively granular coal or wood. These materials are good thermal insulators- they do a poor job conducting heat. The layer of ash they generate when burned is also lousy at transferring heat and gives you another layer between fire and foot.

Secondly, the practice invariably tends to minimize the duration of contact between feet and heat. Participants are meant to walk a little hurriedly; faster than normal, but not too fast. Think about walking on the beach on a particularly hot day when you don’t have flip-flops because you’ve forgotten/are too lazy/are too drunk. You want to get across as fast as you can, of course, but doing that entails pushing down hard with each step and prolonging contact with the devil-sand. Because the opposite, a prance that might be appropriately set to something from the Nutcracker, will make you look like an idiot, you opt for a kind of double-time pace that still looks funny, but less obviously so.

Makes sense. At least enough for me to put a check in this box and move on to more pressing questions. But there’s a problem: there’s not much science behind the science, either.

The Bad, Bad Science

Combing through the web, even through scholarly research to back up these widely-held science-based explanations for the injury resistance of firewalkers, I discovered something: it’s all one big circle-jerk.

Basically, everyone writing about this topic under the imprimatur of the scientific rationalist, which includes scientists, science journalists, and science bloggers, all reference the same, limited set of other writing. Moreover, the writing that is referenced is almost entirely just the same opinion and assertion, but from people with PhD after their name, sometimes.

This short list includes basically one physicist named Willey, a collection of essays on ‘…fringe-science beliefs from a… scientific point of view’ called The Hundredth Monkey, and what appears to be a verbal presentation at a Physics conference, given by Kjetil Kjernsmo, who is of course a Norwegian computer scientist.

In fact, the sum total of actual raw data seems to be sourced from experiments conducted by the London Council for Psychical (yes, psychical) Investigation in or around 1936. My calculations indicate that these studies – 79 years old, mind you – were based on a combined total of two experimental settings, six subjects, and nine actual firewalks. Nine. A freaking paper in what seems to be a peer-reviewed journal called Experientia concluded that the standard physical and psychological explanations were correct, saying they were based on ‘excellent observations and experiments’.

Now, if you don’t feel it’s worth the time and effort to definitively study this phenomenon, that’s fine, I’m on board. I am totally okay with general hand-waving and a semi-solid underpinning of factuality here- there are a lot of other things either more interesting, more profound, or more worth my limited time on this mortal coil.

And maybe I missed a few things here. Maybe there ‘s a whole bunch of longitudinal firewalking studies out there, replete with controlled settings and charts and rigorous statistical analysis. But if they do exist, seemingly all the accessible sources of opinion-making available to the general public don’t reference them. And I’m not okay with actual scientists and online purveyors of scientific rationalism suggesting that the science is in, case closed, door shut, using voices of haughty certitude they have no right to use.

So, this is a cautionary tale. A reminder that we all tend to act as believers of our faith, and sometimes our religion is Science.


Featured photo: Mr. Usaji — Flickr