Burned firewalkers blame themselves for having poor attitudes

Apparently the people who attended the Tony Robbins program paid anywhere between $600 to $2,000. The blame for those who were burned during the fire-walking climax is being placed on them, saying that they must have been ‘out of state’, which is apparently the technical term for not having the proper mental attitude. Even some of those who were burned say that it was their own fault for not having the right frame of mind despite Robbins’s careful preparation. Some of them repeat it even after getting burned.

Paying so much money for the privilege of getting your feet burned seems to be indicative not so much of ‘being out of state’ but more of ‘being out of your mind’. I had never heard of Robbins before this or of his ‘seminars’, but this effort to demonstrate faith and deflect blame for failure from him and onto themselves seems to be cult-like behavior, similar to snake handlers and poison drinkers.

It is striking how much similarity there is to Sri Lankan fire-walking, which is the climactic event of certain Hindu and Buddhist religious festivals. The people who walk are also told to get into the right state and purify themselves by abstaining from alcohol and other pollutants, no doubt to impress the gods sufficiently with their piety so that they will be protected from burns. When some do get burned, the fault is naturally their own, not that of the gods or the priests who lead the events.

I recall that a group of skeptics a long time ago challenged this notion by drinking alcohol and horsing around just before walking on the coals, to show that frame of mind or purity of body and mind had nothing to do with it.


  1. coragyps says

    Heh! There’s an ad on this page right now for Robbins’ “Life Coach Training.” It’s the Free 5-Hour Course, which I presume means you have to provide your own charcoal.

  2. says

    Is there any woo-free explanation for how you can walk barefoot on hot coals and not get burned?

    Also, has anyone done any kind of survey as to what percentage of firewalkers get burned?

  3. Randomfactor says

    Sure. Coals don’t conduct heat well. Try walking on rocks heated to the same temperature, and you’ll barbecue.

    This probably comes down to not preparing the firepit well enough. Which would be Robbins’ fault, not theirs.

  4. Mano Singham says

    Here’s a partial explanation.

    Whether you get burned or not depends on how much heat your skin absorbs. This depends on the time of contact, the temperature difference between the hot and cold objects, the distance between the hot and cold objects, and something called the thermal conductivity of whatever material is between the hot object and your skin. All those factors determine how rapidly the heat flows from the hot object to the cold object.

    This is the principle behind the insulation in your attics that reduces the rate at with heat is transmitted through the roof. Even a very thin layer of an insulator can drastically reduce the rate of heat transmission. A layer of coal ash or moisture on the feet serves this insulating function in fire walking.

    Another factor at play is what is called the ‘heat capacity’ of the hot and cold objects. If an object has a low heat capacity, then its temperature drops rapidly when it loses even a small amount of heat energy and thus is unable to transfer more heat unless it is heated up by another source. The heat capacity of an object depends on what it is made of as well as its mass. This is why embers from fireplaces, or the oil splatter from a skillet, and other similar sources, when they land on your skin, hurt for a minute but don’t leave major burns, even though their temperature could be extremely high. Their mass is small.

  5. says

    Coals don’t conduct heat well? THey sure as hell conduct heat from the coal to the meat several inches above, so why should they have any trouble conducting heat to a foot that’s directly touching it?

    Sorry if I sound stupid, but that doesn’t strike me as a decent explanation.

  6. says

    Okay, that sounds a little more convincing. So what’s the trick that doesn’t always seem to work here? Did some of the firewalkers not have enough ash on their feet at the beginning? Or did they step too lightly or not keep walking fast enough? The latter would at least seem to support the “you had the wrong attitude/not enough faith” argument.

  7. Jean says

    Watch the mythbusters episode on the subject. They give an explanation and they show examples of success and failure.

  8. Mano Singham says

    The beds are not always of coal but of wood. If you prepare the beds with wood that generates lots of ash and give sufficient time for a layer of ash to build, you can lower the risk of burns. Cuttlefish describes her own experience with fire walking and how she prepares the bed.

    Walking too fast may not help if it results in you scrunching your toes into the embers, thus increasing the chances that they will get stuck between your toes and thus increase time of contact.

  9. Pierce R. Butler says

    Raging Bee @ # 6: Coals don’t conduct heat well? THey sure as hell conduct heat from the coal to the meat several inches above…

    Heat moves around through several ways: the form you describe is radiative heat transfer (the same as how the sun warms the Earth), while the transfer of energy through a continuous medium is called conductivity (how one end of a metal spoon becomes warm when the other end is in the hot soup; a wooden spoon, having much lower conductivity, wouldn’t do that).

    If you were to take a burning coal, extinguish the fire by dunking it in water, and carve a spoon out of it, its thermal conductivity would be very low. You could handle that coal at high temperature with bare skin and little injury for a longer time than you could a similar mass/temperature object made of aluminum, because the parts that cooled down by warming your hand would not become reheated as quickly as the comparable parts of the metal version.

    This also brings up an interesting illusion exploited by fire walkers. We tend to think of heat as coming from a point source, such as a flame. With a large plane (such as a bed of coals) radiating heat, we thus overestimate the temperature, not allowing for the fact that as a sensor (say, your foot) approaches one part of the surface, it “sees” less energy radiating from other areas, so the net energy effect differs greatly from approaching a single hot point.

    *contemplates enormous hubris of offering simplistic explanation of thermodynamics on a physicist’s blog; awaits smackdown*

  10. sqlrob says

    Here’s another way to think about it:

    Preheat your oven to 400 degrees.
    Can you stick your hand in without burning it?
    Can you still cook in it?

  11. eric says

    Here’s the way it was described to me: think about baking an angel food cake in an oven at 350 degrees. The air, the cake, and the steel pan are all at the same temperature -- 350 degrees. But how they affect you is quite different. You can stick your hand in 350 degree air and not get burned. You can put your hand on a 350 degree cake for a short time and not get burned, but if you stick your finger in it or hold your hand on it, you’ll get burned. If you put your hand on 350 degree metal -- instant burn.

    The trick to fire walking is to make sure the fuel (coals, wood, whatever), gets a nice fluffy ash layer on top of it, so its more like that cake and less like a piece of metal. Then, as long as you move fast enough (and don’t stick your toes into it), it won’t burn you.

  12. says

    All the stuff about firewalking and faith and woo and still all I can think of is this:

    You never heard of Tony Robbins until now? Take me into your magical world!

  13. Mano Singham says

    There are huge chunks of popular culture that I am continually surprised by. For example, I had never reheard of Tyler Perry until it seemed like there was a new film of his being released every week.

  14. Steve says

    Which also means that the first people going over have an easier time. After a couple of people, the ash layer is disturbed and the following ones will get burned more easily.

  15. sumwunn says

    Mythbusters did an episode on it. From what i remember the coals need to be of a sufficient depth so they don’t shift as you cross them. also you need to let a sufficient layer of ash build up on top. Ash is a poor heat conductor. No woo required.

  16. Kimpatsu says

    Mano, Prof. Richard Wiseman spoke about firewalking at TAM3 (DVDs still available, I believe.) Basically, he built a 70-foot long fire pit for a British science show, and challenged the woo merchants to cross it. They all ended up with 2nd-degree burns to their feet, and it is the most-complained about science show in the history of British television.

  17. lorn says

    The same dynamic of blaming one’s self for a system failure is also true in the popular ‘prosperity gospel’ churches. If you make it big you are brought up on stage and celebrated by the congregation. If you go bust the assumption is that you did it wrong or God is punishing you for a transgression before you got into the program. Either way it isn’t God’s fault, or the doctrines failure,

    More widely the same dynamic is at work for prayer. If a prayer comes true you’re golden. If not you didn’t pray right, weren’t praying in the right spirit, or didn’t deserve it. If directly blaming yourself doesn’t work for you there is the ever popular sidestep: it wasn’t part of God’s plan, or the ultimate non-reason, God moves in mysterious ways.

    All this seems to be a way of explaining randomness and uncertainty. And it related to how when a busload of kids goes off a cliff and one child survives the bus going off the cliff is variously, the work of the devil, an accident, part of a mysterious plan, but the survivor not dying is a “miracle”.

    It is quite the airtight plan to keep people feeling weak and out of control by crediting all good things that happen to a supernatural being while blaming all bad things that happen on the people. With credit flowing to God and blame flowing to man is it any wonder that it is hard to make progress? Why would anyone try to make things better if you were told all you could do is screw it up. And when you do make progress, well … you don’t get any of that credit.

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