Speaking as a Coldologist…

Here’s a 20 minutes long video of almost nothing happening. You don’t have to watch it all. The  YouTube poster says:

“In this demonstration I show how using advanced meditative skills one can remain warm and comfortable in temperatures well below freezing.”

So the guy claims this is difficult, and that sitting without clothes in -4C is special. I thought I’d use this video to demonstrate something about cold water swimming (and debunk this guy’s invalid claims).

My experience is in cold water swimming, I know little about meditative bio-feedback, other than claims that it exists, and there may be some evidence that people can voluntarily slow their own heart rate.

There is also evidence from Lynn Cox’s Swimming to Antartica, than when tested in cold water, he core temperature rose. She makes no claims about special meditative powers.

Let’s start with three key observations of the video:

  • The subject isn’t moving.
  • There is no wind.
  • He has some fat around his abdomen.

Let me say:

This isn’t special. Many people could this with no training or aid.

In cold water, heat is dissipated about 30 times faster than in air. Last weekend I swam for 51 minutes in 48F (8.8C), without a wetsuit. I have swum at air temps of -3.5C, and in water temperatures of 6C for 20 minutes. Because it’s more difficult and dangerous than this video, I do that only through acclimatization training and I don’t claim any mental superpowers, since there are many people around the world who do this. And I repeatedly explain it without seeking to make it a mystery.

To recap, when the body gets cold, blood flow to the periphery is shut off to conserve core heat. In 5C water, much colder therefore to a person than -4C cold but still air, it will still take 45 minutes, maybe longer, to kill an untrained person, regardless off what you saw on Titanic or Wikipedia.

  • Without movement, blood flow is reduced and muscular thermogenesis is reduced. The primary survival method for cold water shipwreck victims, is to move as little as possible. Because the reduced blood blood, cooler blood can form a thermal barrier under the skin. Movement would ironically reduce this claimant’s comfort. By sitting still he dissipates little heat.
  • There is no wind, as you can see by the vegetation. This means heat loss is significantly reduced because the dissipation rate is slowed. Wind is the most dangerous factor in cold as it conveys heat away quicker. I’d give this more credence if there was an anemometer on view.
  • His build is pretty similar to mine, he may be taller though. Abdominal fat is ubiquitous for cold water swimmers, as it provides another insulating layer for the core.

What we don’t know: How much he does this. What happened off camera.

If he does this regularly, or even if this is only his 5 or 6th time, he has already passed the worst initial phase of hardening and acclimatization and begun a physiological adaptation. He may indeed have already initiated Brown Adipose Tissue (BAT) growth, aka brown fat or baby fat, which is metabolically active and grows in response to cold expose, and provide further slight insulation but more importantly, unlike white fat, actually generates body heat. Also repeated exposure to cold decreases stress hormone production (though that is more related to swimming).

References for all my assertions can be found in the various and many articles on cold I’ve written here, along with my own experience.

Though I don’t consider this hugely difficult, (except sitting like that, my knees would give out, the sitting is the difficult part!), there is also what happened after he left the camera view. Though I cannot see this causing other than Mild Hypothermia (a core body temperature drop of 1 degree, we regularly swim into Moderate Hypothermia here), even if it caused moderate hypo, once he starts moving, he would have 3 to 5 minutes before any chills, shivering or shakes initiated, as cold blood flows into the core, what we call it Afterdrop. After I leave the water, I must get dressed within 5 minutes because after that I will no longer be easily capable. He could be hypo and you wouldn’t see it manifest for a longer period, probably until he was dressed and sitting somewhere warm.

But I doubt this was harder than a cold shower.

This guy may genuinely believe what he is doing is special, but that doesn’t make it so. I wonder if he tried sitting in -4 C before he started meditating, as a control, to see how he improved. We swimmers see how we improve because we can swim in cold longer due to training. But if we wanted to test this guy’s claims, we would take him, another person of similar weight, height, age and gender, with similar body fat % and NO cold experience and me or any cold water swimmer. And then see what happens. We could guess, but then we’d be making stuff up, like this guy. Simple rigorous testing and comparison instead of claims of special powers.

Cold isn’t a mystery. This guy seems to imply that it is. Almost anyone can do it*.

(Some exceptions aside, like heart conditions, Reynaud’s Syndrome).

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2 thoughts on “Speaking as a Coldologist…”

  1. Hey, whilst what this guy does is not super impressive, there is actually some real evidence now that meditation and breathing techniques can help maintain and even increase core temperature.

    This is the most recent thing that I’m aware of:
    http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0058244
    Shows experienced practitioners actively raising their temperature into mild fever range using meditation and breathing and maintaining it, and also shows a bit of impact .on inexperienced practitioners.

    Like you say up there, there’s also evidence from cold swimmers like Lewis Gordon Pugh, that they can increase their body temperature prior to a swim, using their mind alone – ‘anticipatory thermogenesis’ is what Tim Noakes called it:
    (Annoyingly I think these links won’t work outside a university)
    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0140673605678336
    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0306456508001010
    These people don’t claim they are ‘meditating’, they describe it more as being focused, or concentrating on what they’re doing, but that is just terminology. I guess it is interesting that people who are non-mystics can do it, because it suggests that those of us who aren’t into yoga and the mystic trappings of it may be able to learn such concentration techniques without having to buy into the mysticism.

    As far as I know though, whilst this does appear to be a real effect, if you look in detail, all the people who are able to do it in the studies are people who have undergone quite extreme quantities of some kind of cold acclimatisation (Wim Hof style hanging out in ice baths + ice swimming every day, arctic swimmers, monks who wander around outside in Tibet without many clothes on). So for it to be any use, it isn’t a shortcut, more potential for a little bit extra on top of traditional acclimatisation techniques.

    The real pain about it is that the only guides to it are mystic yoga stuff, littered with arcane terminology, where you have no idea what is actually important, and what is essentially religious add ons around the important bits, and Wim Hof’s iceman book, which is 90% traditional cold acclimatisation which we all know about, with a few breathing exercises and meditation exercises with a useless level of detail. I guess the problem is that the people who can do it mostly don’t actually know why they can do it, or how they learnt to do it.

    1. Thanks Joe, and for the time you put into this comment. Really love that you included citations! Win Hof did get mentioned a lot in the little reading I did in this area. And I should use anticipatory thermogenesis more in my cold writing, really.

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