Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us

Quick Studies

Figure 1

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

The Perks of Being a Fire Walker

• March 11, 2014 • 9:45 AM

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

Those who participated in a fire-walking ritual felt happier and less fatigued afterwards than close relatives who spectated.

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.

Bettina Chang
Associate Digital Editor Bettina Chang previously directed editorial content at HomeStyle and Real Estate Weekly. A Chicago native, she serves on the board of directors for Supplies for Dreams, working to improve education outcomes for Chicago Public Schools students. Follow her on Twitter @bechang8.

More From Bettina Chang

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 31 • 4:00 PM

Should the Victims of the War on Drugs Receive Reparations?

A drug war Truth and Reconciliation Commission along the lines of post-apartheid South Africa is a radical idea proposed by the Green Party. asks their candidates for New York State’s gubernatorial election to tell us more.

October 31 • 2:00 PM

India’s Struggle to Get Reliable Power to Hundreds of Millions of People

India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known as a “big thinker” when it comes to energy. But in his country’s case, could thinking big be a huge mistake?

October 31 • 12:00 PM

In the Picture: SNAP Food Benefits, Birthday Cake, and Walmart

In every issue, we fix our gaze on an everyday photograph and chase down facts about details in the frame.

October 31 • 10:15 AM

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.

October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.

October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.

October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”

October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.

October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.

October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.

October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.

October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.

October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.

October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?

October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.

October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.

October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.

October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?

October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.

October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.

October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.

October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.

Follow us

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.