The ability to walk across burning hot coals is known as firewalking and many a New Age motivational speaker wants us to believe that our mind has the power to enable us to do this. Does this explain why so many people at these events end up with their feet on fire while others walk away unscathed?
The phenomena of walking across hot coals, known as firewalking, involves a person walking barefoot across a pit of burning hot coals. Why would anyone do that?
For starters, firewalking is an ancient ritual that is practiced in some parts of the world as a way to ward off natural disasters, to establish one’s valor, or for other spiritual reasons. In the Western world, its practiced at motivational courses and other group events to overcome mental boundaries. New Age self-improvement speakers are fond of the practice and claim that walking across hot coals without getting burned is proof that if you use your mind the right way, it can enable you to do remarkable things.
However, sometimes it doesn't work out so well, which explains why there’s a long history of burn victims associated with these events.
For example, the Daily Mail has documented the latest firewalking catastrophe which occurred recently in northern Switzerland earlier this month on the Au peninsula on Lake Zurich. A private event is believed to have incorporated firewalking as part of a team-building exercise that left 25 people injured, 13 of whom were hospitalized with severe burns.
This is not a rare occurrence. This blog documents a similar outcome several years ago in Dallas where more than 30 participants in an “Unleash the Power Within” event, hosted by the controversial New Age guru Tony Robbins, suffered severe burns while trying to walk across a bed of flaming coals.
The event was “designed to help you unlock and unleash the forces inside that can help you break through any limit and create the quality of life you desire,” his site explained at the time. “Learn how you can surpass your own limitations to achieve your goals and take control of your life.” Part of this “unleashing” apparently suggests that the newly motivated walk on hot coals to prove that they can overcome their fear. Robbins defending himself by claiming that that thousands have walked on the coals, including Oprah Winfrey, and only a few have been burned. Is that possible?
Yes! But it has nothing to do with the power of the mind. It’s pure science, and nothing more.
As the Mail article explains, despite how impossible it might look, the risk of sustaining serious burns while walking across a pit of flaming coals is actually quite low if the act is performed under the right conditions.
“Though the hot charcoal used in firewalking typically registers at a temperature of around 1,000F (more than 500 degrees C), the material is a poor conductor of heat and therefore takes more time to transfer energy to inflict burns on the skin.”
And because the top layer of coals is often cooled and covered in a layer of ash, this further reduces the actual temperature of the coals.
If a person walks across the coals at a measured, brisk pace, they can walk across the coals and experience nothing more than what hot sand would feel like under their feet. However, those who walk too slowly, or who try to run across the coals which kicks up the cooler top layer and exposes the hotter coals beneath, are likely to be burned.
As this article appearing on Skepdic.com explains, “Thus, even if the coals are very hot (1,000 to 1,200 degrees), a person with ‘normal’ soles [the skin on the feet is thicker than on the rest of the body] won't get burned as long as he or she doesn't take too long to walk across the coals and as long as the coals used do not have a very high heat capacity. Volcanic rock and certain wood embers will work just fine.”
Believe it or not, both hardwood and charcoal are good thermal insulators, even when in fire.
“Nevertheless, some people do get burned walking across hot coals, not because they lack faith or willpower, but because the coals are too hot or have a relatively high heat capacity, or because the firewalker's soles are thin or he doesn't move quickly enough. But even very hot coals with a high heat capacity can be walked over without getting burned if one's feet are insulated, e.g., with a liquid such as sweat or water. (Think of how you can wet your finger and touch a hot iron without getting burned.) Again, one must move with sufficient speed or one will get burned.”
So much for the power of the mind! It all boils down to is what people want to believe, rather than what is true – that the ability of walking across hot coals is not the least bit magical and proves nothing about the power of the mind except for its ability to influence the gullible.
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