A study explains for the first time the mechanisms that allow Iceman to say "the ice man" to resist the cold. His technique could have positive effects elsewhere, in immune system disorders or in psychiatry.
Stay 72 minutes in a container filled with ice, climb Mont Blanc in shorts ... The Dutch Wim Hof, called Iceman (French: the ice man) is known for his world records related to its resistance to cold.
Wim Hof explains this ability with a breathing and meditation technique he has developed. Until now, no one had studied the mechanisms of his brain that allowed him this resistance. This is now done with this study, published in the journal NeuroImage and conducted by researchers at Wayne State University in Detroit (USA).
Iceman regulates the temperature of his body
For three days, Wim Hof participated in tests based on two distinct types of imaging: functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission tomography (PET).
The researchers analyzed how his body resisted the cold. They then compared these results with a group of healthy participants. And these are surprising. Thanks to his method of meditation and breathing, Wim Hof manages to make his skin insensitive to cold exposure. It generates heat that dissipates in the lung tissue and warms up the blood.
"The voluntary regulation of skin temperature and therefore body temperature, even when the body is exposed to cold, is unusual, and may also explain its resistance to frostbite," explains Otto Muzik, professor of pediatrics, neurology and radiology.
His brain controls the pain
Wim Hof mobilizes a specific part of his brain: the periaqueductal gray matter (PAG), a set of neurons that plays a major role in pain and defense behaviors.
According to the researchers, Wim Hof's method would release opioids and cannabinoids voluntarily to control pain. This creates a feeling of well-being and reduces anxiety.
A method that could be expected
According to the researchers, Wim Hof's method could interest science. Especially in cases of diseases of the immune system (multiple sclerosis or lupus for example) or in cases of psychiatric disorders, such as mood disorders or anxiety. Based on these results and Iceman's performance, new studies will be conducted.