Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Playing with fire

At a recent Tony Robbins conference in California, 21 people were treated for burns after the self-help guru had them walk on hot coals as part of a confidence exercise.

"I heard wails of pain, screams of agony"... One young woman appeared to be in so much pain "it was horrific."

Two attendees who were interviewed by the San Jose Mercury had this to say:

The keys to not getting singed are faith and concentration. "I did it before, didn't get into the right state and got burned... I knew I wasn't at my peak state. I didn't take it as serious."

In actual fact, the keys to not getting burned have little to do with the state of your mind and everything to do with simple physics, specifically 1- the temperature of your feet and 2- the time they spend at that temperature. In other words, a quick walk on hot coals will not do much damage as long as the heat transfer to the soles of your feet is minimal.

There are three ways that a substance, like coals, can transfer heat:

1- Convection, which occurs only in gases and fluids;
2- Electromagnetic radiation, where energy is transferred in the form of electromagnetic waves, as in the case of the sun; and
3- Conduction, which occurs when two substances touch, and the energy from the vibrating molecules of the hotter substance is transferred to the molecules of the less hot substance. A measure of a substance's efficiency at transferring heat energy in this way is called thermal conductivity.

Of these three, convection is irrelevant to firewalking since coals are neither a gas nor a liquid. They do emit electromagnetic radiation, but much of this is blocked if there is an insulating layer of ash over the coals, and in any case is fairly negligible because of the minimal amount of time your feet spend in contact with the coals, particularly if you are, so to speak, hotfooting it. Conduction is the most relevant method of heat transfer in this case, and it is mitigated by the comparatively low thermal conductivity of both coal and human flesh, especially if that flesh is thick and rough and calloused, like the skin on the soles of many people's feet.

In other words, if you were to firewalk on a hot metal surface, or touch a hot cast-iron skillet, or even just stand on hot coals for a very long time, your feet would get burned, regardless of the state of your mind as you performed the act. Even people who did firewalk at this event (and others) and were not treated for burns reported blisters on their soles. At this particular event the size of the crowd probably meant that it took longer for people to work their way across the coals, increasing the contact time between their feet and the coals and thus their risk of a burn.

In my opinion, the most pernicious aspect of all this, and what disturbs me about charlatanism in general, is the insistence on the "power of the mind", whether it be the power to resist the physics of heat transfer, or the ability to cure or even prevent your own cancer. To me, this is a simple blaming the victim, because if you fail, or fall prey to random bad luck, then by this reasoning it is because you didn't try hard enough, weren't in your "peak state", or "didn't take it as serious".

There is a lot we can influence with our actions, and even with our perceptions. For instance, there is little dispute that your emotional response to stress can cause physiological changes. But it's just as important to understand what we can't influence. As hard as it may be to accept that sometimes we are the victims of circumstances beyond our control, to me it would be far worse to have to take responsibility for everything meted out by the fates to us poor mortals. Part of harnessing the "power of the mind" is to first understand its limitations.

The moral of the story is: If you play with fire, and the physics are not in your favor, you will get burned.

References and further reading:
The physics of firewalking
The perils of positive thinking