The mind has incredible powers — it can create illusions out of thin air and hear voices that don’t exist. It can modify the body’s response to pain, disease and stress. It can eliminate symptoms simply through the power of belief. The mind is powerful, but is it capable of regulating bodily temperature? Wim Hof of the Netherlands, known to some as the Iceman, would have us believe that it is.
When I first learned of Wim from my neighborhood YMCA Zen Buddhist, I was quite skeptical. I remained unconvinced after skimming through his disjointed 2011 book, Becoming the Iceman. But as I have researched the Web (and by the Web, I mean YouTube) and the medical literature, my skepticism has softened. More on that in a moment – but first, about the Iceman.
Wim Hof is fifty-two years old. Like many of us middle-agers, he has flat and thinning hair and shorts that ride higher than warranted. But unlike most others on the planet, he can mute his body’s response to extremely cold temperature. If you don’t believe me, pull up some of the videos — they are remarkable. But for those who might be experiencing a Comcast moment without connectivity (I’m not the only one, am I?), let me expound. The Iceman, whose stated profession is “world record breaker,” has completed each of the following cold hard tricks: 1) stood fully immersed in 700 pounds ice for one hour and 44 minutes, 2) hiked to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro (19,340 feet) in two days wearing only shorts, and 3) completed a full marathon in similar attire in temperatures averaging about minus four degrees Farenheit.
I think we can all agree that these are feats that are not for the average weekend warrior and may be unnecessarily masochistic. But Wim finds them therapeutic. “Cold is a warm friend,” he says. Yes, cold is nice — in ice cream and popsicles — but how does someone stay emerged in ice for almost two hours without damage? Scientists who have studied Wim’s response to cold temperatures are amazed. Says one in a TED video, “He is a physiological mystery.” Incredibly, Wim can maintain a stable core body temperature for nearly an hour while submerged in ice — a trick that you would absolutely not want to try at home. And, his heart rate and breathing also stay stable – once again, not the expected response. So, something about the Iceman is different. Perhaps it is his lifetime of acclimatization to cold temperatures, or maybe it is because he is a genetic freak. Or maybe, just maybe, it is because he is an alien from the planet Neptune. Or, perhaps, as Wim asserts, it is because his mind has mastered his body through meditation. Yes, Wim has a meditative technique, one that is thoroughly documented in his book.
It’s called Tummo meditation, and it is an ancient practice of Buddhist monks. Thirty years ago, a study by Benson et al, published in Nature, reported that the bodily responses of Indo-Tibetan Yogis practicing this technique — demonstrating remarkable changes in the temperature of their fingers and toes (up to 17 degrees Farenheit) in a cold environment. Later, the same team produced videos of Tibetian monks drying frigid wet sheets with their own body heat. So, it seems possible to alter the brain’s automatic nervous system through merely the focus of the mind. How this works, from a physiology standpoint, remains a mystery. We do know that it is not unprecedented in the animal kingdom; many animals, including snails and bees, can regulate body temperature. This fact suggests that an ancient area of the brain, such as the hypothalamus, is involved.
Dr. Andrew Newberg, Director of Research at the Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University and the author of a study of cerebral blood flow during meditation, summarizes the science of the question:
“…it is known that meditation, including Tummo, can have profound effects on the autonomic nervous system that regulates body metabolism, temperature, etc. So while I am not sure if there has been any systematic study other than some old studies, it is reasonable to postulate that people can regulate body temperature and metabolism through meditation practices. Further, it is not just increased metabolism, but sometimes a decreased metabolism that allows for a conservation of energy in the body. This might allow the body to function at a broader range of temperatures. However, a lot of this is speculation.”
What is also is speculation is how the Iceman can effectively practice the Tummo technique while in motion, such as when attempting to climb Mt. Everest in shorts (he made it to almost 25,000 feet). What is not in doubt, however, is the power of the mind and the wonderful irony that for many of us, what often limits the power of mind is its preference for the status quo. You might say that the greatest impediment to the mind is the mind itself.