The Perks of Being a Fire Walker - Pacific Standard

The Perks of Being a Fire Walker

Those who participated in a fire-walking ritual felt happier and less fatigued afterwards than close relatives who spectated.
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A female fire walker stepping onto the fire. (Photo: Fischer et al/PLoS ONE)

A female fire walker stepping onto the fire. (Photo: Fischer et al/PLoS ONE)

Those who’ve gotten a taste of runner’s high might consider a harder drug with higher stakes—fire-walker’s high.

A new research paper published last month in open-access journal PLoS ONE examines the emotional states and heart rates before and after a collective fire-walking ritual in Mauritius, an island off the coast of Madagascar.

The results show that men and women who participated in the body-piercing and fire-walking portion of the ritual (high-ordeal participants) reported happier emotional states and less fatigue than spectators who participated in less stressful portions of the ritual or did not participate at all.

The Thimithi festival in Mauritius begins with high-ordeal participants piercing their bodies with objects “that vary from needles through the tongue and forehead to skewers 1-2 cm in diameter through the cheeks.”

"Perceiving apparent suffering of people close to oneself can be more distressing and exhausting than suffering oneself."

Then, the high-ordeal participants, along with a few chosen relatives (known as low-ordeal participants), embark on a barefoot procession over hot "asphalt in the mid-afternoon sun without consuming water or food.”

After arriving at the temple, the high-ordeal participants also walk over the edges of swords and then over a bed of glowing charcoal as the main event, with their relatives and unrelated spectators watching.

But don’t worry, it’s not all pain and suffering: The festival ends with a giant group meal.

While it might be counter-intuitive that such a harrowing experience would result in positive affect, the researchers say it’s indicative of a phenomenon known as “collective effervescence,” a term coined by Emile Durkheim, the father of sociology. When people engage in ritualistic behavior together, according to the theory, the group becomes excited and more unified.

The direct causes of the positive affect, the researchers hypothesize, could be an increase in “opioid releases during strenuous performance,” much like so-called runner’s high. Fire walkers that reach the end of the coals could also benefit from the offset of physical pain, which has been shown to cause increased levels of happiness.

However, researchers found that low-ordeal participants reported higher levels of fatigue than both the high-ordeal participants and the spectators.

Researchers suggest that this is a result of low-ordeal participants not getting the boost of opioids (the emotional high) from fire walking, which is the culmination of the entire ritual. Plus, they are compelled to feel empathic pain for their relatives, the high-ordeal participants, instead of physical pain, which can be offset after the event is over.

“Perceiving apparent suffering of people close to oneself can be more distressing and exhausting than suffering oneself,” they write.

Maybe you’ll think twice the next time you decline an offer to walk on fire.

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