The physics of hot coals

November 11, 2019

The physics of hot coals

Interested in firewalking but not convinced that “mind over matter” will prevent your feet from burning? We don’t blame you. It’s a scary thought indeed, but you’re much safer than you might think.

Fortunately, you don’t have to take our word for it because there’s a science behind firewalking that will convince even the most doubtful that it can be perfectly safe.  

How to not get burned (according to science)

The mystery behind walking on hot coals and why it works can be understood by examining a physical property known as thermal conductivity. Thermal conductivity, essentially, is an object’s ability to transfer energy in the form of heat to another object. Why is this so important? Because it has everything to do with the transfer of heat from the searing, sizzling coals to your naked feet.

Coal is comprised of carbon, which, as it turns out, is pretty terrible at conducting heat. And a hot coal, in particular, is covered with a thin layer of ash, which is an even less effective conductor. So what you have is something bad at transferring heat to your skin encased in something even worse at conducting heat (ash).

In addition to a hot coal being pretty weak when it comes to the transfer of heat energy, so, too, are your feet. So, if you’re not spending time lingering over each coal and instead briskly walking across them, there’s a low risk of being burned. Pacing is part of the secret to walking on hot coals: too slow and the coals have a chance to burn your feet. Too fast and your feet will sink deeper into the layer of ash, also increasing your chances of being burned. Those who master the art of firewalking walk swiftly without rushing.

Think of it this way: If you reach into a hot stove and touch a piece of metal in it, you’ll be burned immediately because metal is an excellent heat conductor. But if you reach into a hot stove and briefly touch the top of a cake you’re baking, you won’t be burned because, like a hot coal, the cake’s consistency makes it a poor heat conductor.

True mind over matter

But poor conductivity isn’t the only thing protecting your feet from hot coals – your brain plays a part in it, too.

Consider this common science experiment: If you fill a paper cup with water and place it over a flame, you might think the paper will catch on fire. But because water can only reach a temperature of 212 degrees Fahrenheit before it turns to steam, and since water’s in constant contact with the cup, the paper can’t get any hotter than 212 degrees  – well below the temperature necessary for it to catch on fire.

What does this have to do with walking on hot coals? The blood flowing through your body keeps you from getting burned in much the same way water prevents the cup from lighting on fire.

This is where your emotional state comes into play. When you’re in a heightened state of fear, your body’s blood vessels constrict so there’s less blood flowing through your feet, and therefore less burn protection. On the other hand, if you’re in the right state of mind – peak state – your blood will flow more freely, helping to protect your feet.

Fear and emotional mastery

So how do you get into that state of mind before you attempt to walk on hot coals? It’s all about using fear before it uses you and being the master of your emotions.

If you convince yourself that you have no choice but to succeed when it comes to walking on hot coals – or doing anything that scares you – you can use that fear to break through your barriers. If you are committed to succeeding no matter what, the sacrifice of walking on hot coals won’t be a question – it will be the incremental step toward unlocking an extraordinary life.

Mastering your own emotions also plays a part in the science behind firewalking. You can easily get fearful and upset when thinking about walking on hot coals and spiral into anxiety and negative self-talk that keeps you from taking action. When you can identify what you really feel and get curious about the message that emotion is offering you, it leads to confidence and certainty that you can handle anything. You can then be excited about the challenge that firewalking presents instead of getting sucked into negativity and apprehension.

When you consider the science behind firewalking from both a physical and mental perspective, you’ll see that you have nothing to lose and everything to gain from participating in a controlled event where walking on hot coals is used to ignite change and increased self-confidence.

For those feeling skeptical about their ability to walk across hot coals, it really is about mind over matter (with support from science, too). Master your emotions and you won’t just walk across coals, you’ll master the firewalk that is life.

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