Unscientific Science Experiment: Cold Water Immersion
The other day, my friend, Ben Creighton, and I were joking that we needed to find more things about which we disagree.
Not a typical complaint between friends, I’ll grant you.
I’m a regular guest on a weekly live stream he produces for his Twitch viewers and sometimes our chats can get echo-chamber-esque. It’s not the worst problem for friends to have, but it doesn’t always make for the most interesting content.
During that particular show, we were discussing the news that Ben had recently purchased an ice bath machine. He put a video on his channel of him taking an ice bath and then covered his nipples with the Twitch Terms of Service as he got out to comply with Twitch’s “no nipples” policy.
He cracks me up.
For the uninitiated, the function of an ice bath machine is pretty much exactly what you would expect from the name: it’s a refrigerated steel tub that makes ice and ice water, in which humans immerse their entire bodies for various reasons.
The concept of cold water immersion for athletic recovery isn’t new, but more and more people of late have been engaging in the practice for the supposed holistic mental and physical health benefits.
Motivational speaker Tony Robbins starts his day with an ice bath and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey recently brought the practice mainstream with his revelation that he takes up to three per day. They are just two of a growing number of visible proponents who claim that ice baths have positive and lasting effects.
Having viewed his intro video, Ben’s audience was understandably curious about both the “what?” and the “why?”, and since we both have experience with cold water immersion, we thought it would be an interesting topic for the show.
Granted, my run-ins with ice baths have been adjacent to people close to me who believe strongly in their effectiveness. If they are doing it and I’m around, I’ll do it, too.
Ben, having his own machine, is a little more invested.
So we start talking about what it's like to voluntarily dunk yourself in what looks (and feels) like a giant glass of ice water and why the hell we would do something like that? — and the really interesting part came when we each began describing our respective experiences during the cold water immersion.
Ben shared that he maxes out at about two and a half minutes in the ice water and that a big part of the challenge for him is managing his anxiety. As soon as he gets in, he wants to get out immediately and it takes a substantial amount of self-control to stay in for those 2+ minutes. His fight-or-flight response gets activated and his thoughts race out of control. He struggles to maintain his composure and, on top of the mental struggle, he feels significant physical pain.
That was hard for me to wrap my brain around. Ben is a pretty stoic guy. Unlike myself, he isn’t transparent with his emotions or his fears and I wouldn’t have imagined that his experience would be so wholly divergent from mine, nor that his description would fall so heavy on the anxious end of the experience spectrum.
However, we did find something discordant to discuss. #winning
I regularly clock in at 6–7 minutes in the ice water. I don’t feel pain, except in the very tips of my fingers and toes and only after at least half of the time has passed, at which point Ben is already out. My thoughts drain from my brain involuntarily and my consciousness is literally altered. I feel centered and powerful and don’t want to get out. My eyes fix and a sense of clarity and calm descends on me.
Yes, it sounds (and probably looks) ridiculous and yes, I am dead serious.
Keep in mind that all this Zen is being reported by a woman who was gifted an “Always Cold” sweatshirt from her family for her birthday and has suffered Raynauds Syndrome since she was 14 years old.
I’m the first to call it bizarre.
Being two intelligent and intellectually curious people, Ben and I mused about the possible causes for our differences but didn’t arrive at anything we felt was conclusive.
One idea that occurred to me, after our stream, was maybe my calmness was conditioned and not discernable — that my consciousness wasn’t actually altered, I simply believed that it was.
I love a good hypothesis to test.
The Observer Effect in physics states that the mere observation of a phenomenon changes that phenomenon.
So, when I went into the ice bath today, head adorned with a meditation headband/device that reads brain waves and interprets them as “active, neutral, or calm”, I knew that simply the act of wearing the headband could affect the outcome.
The device is something that I had used previously when I was experimenting last year with my daughter on breathwork and mindfulness, in an attempt to calm her overactive vagus nerve (which helped, BTW).
Fun AJ Fact: “Calm” isn’t my jam. My daughter smoked me every time we did the meditation headbands together, spending 60–70% of her sessions in “Calm.” I considered my sessions a success if I could achieve “Calm” for 20% of the duration.
To run the cold water immersion experiment, I first did a five-minute dry land, standard meditation session with the headband to serve as a control. After that session, I pulled up my last meditation session from 2018 to compare and make sure there weren’t significant discrepancies.
I pulled the previous session’s data after completing today’s meditation to ensure that viewing it wouldn’t affect today’s results.
2018 Dry Land Meditation
As you can see, last year I spent only small snippets of time in “Calm”, dipping down briefly before spiking back into “Neutral”. I did this so often that, in 2018, I got to the point that “Calm” was no longer the goal and I was happy to see more time in “Neutral” than “Active”, as I did here. This was a good session for me.
Today’s Dry Land Meditation
Here is my dryland session from today. I was still able to spend most of my time in “Neutral”, with small dips into “Calm”. Interestingly, the duration of “Calm” in this session was exactly the same as in the 2018 session. They were similar enough that I felt like I had established a reasonable baseline.
The next part of the experiment was to spend another five minutes in the ice bath and record the results on the meditation device, which I did roughly an hour after the first meditation.
Today’s Cold Water Meditation Session
This is some interesting data.
While my gross time in “Calm” was actually less than in the two comparative sessions, the duration of over 40 contiguous seconds in calm was not only unprecedented in the two previous sessions I reference here, but upon review, it was unprecedented in all 15 sessions that I have recorded and saved on my app over the past two years.
Add in the fact that I can correlate the loss of “Calm” with the appearance of a very loud and unexpected train that passed close to where I was bathing today, starting about two minutes in, and which lasted the remainder of the five minutes.
As soon as I realized I was focusing on the train disturbance — which ironically included worrying about whether it would affect my focus — I knew that the results would be skewed. I found my mind racing, trying to force itself back into a state of zen — and then I realized that I was actively trying to manipulate my mental state and so I tried to stop doing that — which pretty much trashed the validity of the last three minutes of results.
That being said, those 40 calm seconds stand out to me as potentially significant and worthy of repeated trials.
What I can pull from this little amateur experiment is that there may be a difference in my brain waves (inasmuch as the device can be trusted to report them) when I get into the ice bath.
It’s not wholly involuntary, or I likely wouldn’t have lost my focus with the passing of the train, but there may be a level of calmness I am primed to access when submerged in the ice water that I am not able to when I am not.
My next experiment consists of repeating the series on myself (sans train, of course) and also running the same experiment on Ben and seeing what his brain wave pattern reveals.
Keep in mind that I’m no CEO of Twitter. I’m not a motivational speaker or public figure of any kind. I’m just a woman trying to do things that make her mind and body stronger.
Thanks for reading. -AJ