If I had read this title a short while ago I would probably have scoffed it off at first but not any longer. I recently became interested in Wim Hof’s teachings and physical feats of survival because I noticed that he uses breathing techniques. Breathing techniques were something on my mind since a friend who practices yoga told me how powerful they were.
I’m already a daily meditator, why not explore related techniques? Especially after recognizing a pattern between yoga and Wim Hof’s technique.
Reading a book about a skeptical investigative journalist trying to debunk Wim who ended up being an avid practitioner of his training seemed like a good idea too start.
In the following
AN ODE TO A JELLYFISH
Book: What doesn’t Kill You
I don’t like to suffer. Nor do I particularly want to be cold, wet, or hungry. If I had a spirit animal it would probably be a jellyfish floating in an ocean of perpetual comfort. Every now and then I’d snack on some passing phytoplankton, or whatever it is that jellyfish snack on, and I’d use the tidal forces of the ocean to keep me at the optimal depth. If I were lucky enough to have come into the world as a Turritopsis dohrnii, the so-called “immortal jellyfish,” then I wouldn’t even have to worry about death. When my last days approached, I could simply shrivel into a ball of goo and reemerge a few hours later as a freshly minted juvenile version of myself. Yes, it would be awesome to be a jellyfish.
Unfortunately, as it turns out, I am not an amorphous blob of sea-goop. As a human I am merely the most recent iteration of several hundred million years of evolutionary development from the time we were all just muck in a primordial soup. Most of those previous generations had it pretty rough. There were predators to outwit, famines to endure, species-ending cataclysms to evade, and an ever-changing struggle to survive in outright hostile environments. And, let’s be real, most of those would-be ancestors died along the way without passing on their genes.
Evolution is a continual battle waged through generations of minute mutations where only particularly fit or lucky creatures outperform hapless genetic dead ends. The body we have today hasn’t stopped evolving, but I still think if we peel back all the eons of changes that brought us here today that we will still find a little bit of jellyfish at the very core of our beings.
This is because we have a nervous system that is almost perfectly attenuated for homeostasis: the effortless state where the environment meets every physical need. Our nervous system automatically responds to challenges in the world around us—triggering muscle contractions, releasing hormones, modulating body temperature, and performing a million other tasks that give us an edge in a particular moment.
But barring an urgent need for survival the human body is perfectly content to simply rest and do nothing. Doing things, doing anything, requires a certain amount of energy, and our bodies would rather save up that energy just in case they need it later. The great bulk of these bodily functions lie just beneath our conscious thoughts, but if whatever motivates our nervous system could express itself, it would probably maintain that the body that it is responsible for would best tick by admirably well in a state of perpetual and stressless comfort.
But what is
The programming that makes us gluttons for the easy life
Anatomically modern humans have lived on the planet for almost 200,000 years. That means your officemate who sits on a rolling chair beneath fluorescent lights all day has pretty much the same basic body as the prehistoric caveman who made spear points out of flint to hunt antelope. To get from there to here humans faced countless challenges as we fled predators, froze in snowstorms, sought shelter from the rain, hunted and gathered our food, and continued breathing despite suffocating heat. Until very recently there was never a time when comfort could be taken for granted—there was always a balance between the effort we expended and the downtime we earned. For the bulk of that time we managed these feats without even a shred of what anyone today would consider modern technology. Instead, we had to be strong to survive. If your pasty-skinned officemate had the ability to travel back in time and meet one of his prehistoric ancestors it would be a very bad idea for him to challenge that caveman to a footrace or a wrestling match.
Over the course of hundreds of thousands of years humans invented some things that made life easier—fire, cooking, stone tools, fur skins, and foot bindings—but we were still largely at the mercy of nature. About 5,000 years ago, at the dawn of recorded history, things got a little easier still as we domesticated various animal species to do work for us, built better shelters, and carried more sophisticated gear. As human culture advanced at least it all was getting incrementally easier. Even so, being a human was not exactly carefree. Each age let us depend more on our ingenuity and less on our basic biology until technological progress was poised to outpace evolution itself. And then, sometime in the early 1900s, our technological prowess became so powerful that it broke our fundamental biological links to the world around us. Indoor plumbing, heating systems, grocery stores, cars, and electric lighting now let us control and fine-tune our environment so thoroughly that many of us can live in what amounts to a perpetual state of homeostasis. It doesn’t matter what the weather is like outside—scorching heat, blizzards, thunderstorms, or just fine summer days—a person can wake up long past when the sun rises, eat a breakfast chock-full of fruits flown in from a climate halfway across the globe, head to work in a temperature-controlled car, spend the day in an office, and come home without ever feeling the outside air for more than a few minutes. Modern humans are the very first species since the jellyfish that can almost completely ignore their natural obstacles to survival.
Yet comfort’s golden age has a hidden dark side. While we can imagine what a difficult environment might feel like, very few of us routinely experience the stresses of our forebears. With no challenge to overcome, frontier to press, or threat to flee from, the humans of this millennium are overstuffed, overheated, and understimulated. The struggles of us privileged denizens of the developed world—getting a job, funding a retirement, getting kids into a good school, posting the exactly right social media update—pale in comparison to the daily threats of death or deprivation that our ancestors faced. Despite this apparent victory, success over the natural world hasn’t made our bodies stronger. Quite the opposite, in fact: Effortless comfort has made us fat, lazy, and increasingly in ill health.
The developed world—and, for that matter, much of the developing world—no longer suffers from diseases of deficiency. Instead we get the diseases of excess. This century has seen an explosion of obesity, diabetes, chronic pain, hypertension, and even a resurgence of gout. Countless millions of people suffer from autoimmune ailments—from arthritis to allergies, and from lupus to Crohn’s and Parkinson’s disease—where the body literally attacks itself. It is almost as if there are so few external threats to contend with that all our stored energy instead wreaks havoc on our insides.
There is a growing consensus among many scientists and athletes that humans were not built for eternal and effortless homeostasis. Evolution made us seek comfort because comfort was never the norm. Human biology needs stress—not the sort of stress that damages muscle, gets us eaten by a bear, or degrades our physiques—but the sort of environmental and physical oscillations that invigorates our nervous systems. We’ve been honed over millennia to adapt to an ever-changing environment. Those fluctuations are ingrained in our physiology in countless ways that are, for the most part, unconnected to our conscious minds.
Muscles, organs, nerves, fat tissue, and hormones all respond and change because of input they get from the outside world. Critically, some external signals set off a cascade of physiological responses that skip the conscious parts of our brains and connect to a place that controls a wellspring of hidden physical reactions called collectively fight-or-flight responses. For example, a plunge into ice-cold water not only triggers a number of processes to warm the body, but also tweaks insulin production, tightens the circulatory system, and heightens mental awareness. A person actually has to get uncomfortable and experience that frigid cold if they want to initiate those systems. But who wants to do that? The bulk of us don’t see environmental stress in the same light as we do, say, exercise. There doesn’t seem to be an obvious reason to leave our shells of environmental bliss.
Maybe that’s not entirely fair. In recent years a counterculture has tried to push back against technological overzealousness to reclaim some of our animal nature. They’ve shucked fancy footwear for flat shoes (and some cases no shoes at all). They’ve turned away from climate-controlled exercise gyms in favor of rough obstacle courses and boot camps that force muscle groups to work in unison. They’re hacking their diets: eating tubers and meat and foregoing grains reminiscent of our Paleolithic ancestors. At least eight million people have bought a product called the Squatty Potty, a device for the toilet to help a person poop in a squatting stance like our pre-toileted forebears did. Millions more sign up for obstacle course races that feature electrified grids, pools of freezing water, and grueling climbs over wooden barriers. They compete until they are so bone tired that their muscles shake. They puke in the mud with tears in their eyes. It’s not exhilaration they’re seeking: it’s suffering. Their pain is so much on the forefront of the experience that the industry of obstacle courses and boot camps are sometimes called “
It would be wrong to call this movement a fad. To some
Advanced technology permeates everything we do, but the people who decide to abandon some of that comfort for the rawness of nature represent an indigenous ethos that has almost been wiped out by a societal desire for comfort. They’re learning that if they embrace the way their bodies respond to the natural world, they can unlock a hidden wellspring of animal strength.
Today tens of thousands of people are discovering that the environment contains hidden tools for hacking the nervous system. But no matter what they might be able to accomplish, they’re not superhuman. The fortitude they find comes from within the body itself. When they forego a few creature comforts and delve more deeply into their own biology they’re becoming more human. For at least half a century the conventional wisdom about maintaining good physical health has rested on the twin pillars of diet and exercise. While those are no doubt vital, there’s an equally important, but completely ignored, third pillar. And what’s more? By incorporating environmental training into your daily routine, you will achieve big results in very little time.
It only takes a matter of weeks for the human body to acclimatize to a dazzling array of conditions. Once you arrive at high altitude, your body automatically produces more red blood cells to compensate for lower oxygen saturation. Move to an oppressively hot environment and your body will sweat out fewer salts over time and produce lower volumes of urine. Heat will also stimulate your cardiovascular system to become more efficient and increase evaporation and cooling. Yet no environmental extreme induces as many changes in human physiology as the cold does.
Imagine, if you will, a native Bostonian’s experience in the winter. Though beset by ice storms, sleet, blizzards, and constant overcast skies, Boston is not the coldest city in America. But the Boston winters are sufficiently miserable to motivate most of its population to head indoors and jack up the thermostat in the colder months. In Boston, the mean difference between the indoor temperature and the outside air in January is a shiver-inducing 39 degrees. When this typical Bostonian walks out the front door of her stately brownstone she probably cringes with pain as a blast of icy air quickens her nerves and turns her face into a grimace. Beneath the surface of her
These unhabituated responses of the human body are not pleasant, but the physiology of the process is worth examining. The human circulatory system is made up of a series of spongy arteries and veins that carry our blood supply (and oxygen) to every tissue. Arteries carry red, oxygen-rich blood away from the heart and lungs while blue-tinged veins carry it back. This vast and complex network of vessels would extend more than 60,000 miles if laid end to end. In a single day, the 5.6 liters of blood in a human body travels a total of almost 12,000 miles through the
Aside from its lifesaving potential following dismemberment, the circulatory system has other reasons to flex its muscles. To stave off hypothermia, the body conserves heat by shutting off blood supply to the extremities. When this happens, miles of vestibular roadways squinch closed, keeping most of the blood in the body’s core and letting the vital organs relax in a warm blood cocoon while temperatures in the hands, feet, ears, and nose plummet. The colder it is outside, the stronger the response. For a person not regularly conditioned to temperature shifts, vasoconstriction is painful. The only way that most of us can trigger the muscle response is to actually go outside and feel the cold. And those of us who live in perpetually climate-controlled environments never exercise this part of our circulatory system.
Weak circulatory muscles are a side effect of living in a very narrow band of temperature variation. The vast majority of humanity today—the entire population that spends the bulk of its time indoors and/or whose only experience when it gets too cold or too hot is wearing state-of-the-art outdoor gear—never exercises this critical system of their body. Even people who appear physically fit, with lean muscles and chiseled abs, might be secretly hiding weak circulatory muscles. And the stakes are huge: In the long run, circulatory diseases contribute to almost 30 percent of the world’s mortality.
There’s an entire hidden physiology in our bodies that operates on evolutionary programming most of us make no attempt to unlock. Muscle control in the central nervous system breaks down into three distinct categories. There are muscles that we can activate consciously, in what doctors call the somatic nervous system. When you decide to walk across the room, your brain fires the nerves that activate muscles all up through the legs, back, and stomach at once. We don’t need to think about every muscle involved in taking a step, we just do it. Still, with some deliberate thought we can individually fire any one of them. This is all part of the somatic system. There are also muscles that we have almost no control over whatsoever. These include muscles that control the pace of the heart, the motion of the vascular system, the speed of digestion, and the dilation of our pupils. All of these are part of the autonomic nervous system—the body’s version of autopilot. But there’s a third group of muscles and reactions that are shared between the autonomic and somatic systems. Any one of us can decide to take a breath or blink our eyes, but if we let our minds wander, some deep part of our nervous system takes over. If you want to, you can hijack control away from some automatic processes with a thought, but when your mind drifts away, they continue on their own. This is a good thing: With such a system there’s no way that you can simply forget to breathe.
The division emerges from deep within our evolutionary roots. Simple life forms respond to the environment in predictable ways. For most mammals, many of these automatic responses originate in the most primitive parts of the brain, near its stem. These relays bypass
But what happened when humans gained so much
Almost since the beginning of recorded history, humans have seen themselves as separate from the natural world. We divide the planet into two categories: things influenced by human action and things that are untouched. The distinction is false. On a global
The tiny muscles around your veins have one unambiguous answer to that question. Despite everything that we try to do to separate ourselves from the world around us, humans are still indisputably part of nature. As byproducts of evolution, the skyscrapers, plastics, and automobiles we manufacture are no less “natural” than a termite mound, a honeycomb, or a beaver dam. Yes, the actions that humans make may be significantly more destructive or ambitious or awe-inspiring or futile, but they are all part of a greater system of causes and effects. We are still animals. Just very smart ones.
So what does this have to do with the neocortex? Well, if our bodies have preset responses to natural conditions, then maybe it’s too simple to think about the limits of the body as stopping at the skin in the first place. Perhaps humans exist in a sort of continuum with the outside world. Our bodies are not discrete things; rather, they are reflections of the environment that they inhabit.
Let me give an example. In the past 40 years, naturalists who study ants have struggled with a similar paradigm shift. There are several distinct types of ants in any given colony. There are worker ants that search out and hunt for food and who carry out the bulk of the manual labor; there are big-headed soldier ants that defend the colony from invaders; and there are breeding ants that constantly churn out new generations. On one level every ant is an individual entity with legs, mandibles, antennae, and an ability to navigate the world on its own. Because you can hold an ant in your hand, dissect it, and analyze its individual parts, it’s logical to think of an ant as a single insect. But there is another way to think about that same ant. Instead of millions of distinct insects, today’s ant biologists tend to think of the entire colony as a single living organism. When looked at in this way ants are essentially cells of a larger creature. The colony is the body. The group grows in size in the summer and shrinks in the winter. It conquers territory, amasses resources, and gestates a new generation. The sum of all ants together is much greater than the abilities of any individual creature. The colony works as a sort of networked brain: a superorganism.
The body that you have isn’t too different from an ant colony. Long before animals ever appeared on earth, in a time when life comprised mostly single-celled organisms, microscopic bean-shaped bacteria called mitochondria flourished in the wild. These single-cell life-forms ate up oxygen from the environment and expelled an energy-rich waste product called adenosine triphosphate, or ATP. Over the course of millions of years, larger single-cell critters needed more energy to perform complex functions. Rather than develop a novel approach to creating ATP, they evolved to absorb mitochondria into their own cellular structures. Thus the first animal cells were born out of a symbiotic relationship. If you were to peer through a microscope into any random red blood cell, you would find thousands of mitochondria sucking up oxygen and excreting ATP.1 You couldn’t survive without them. But that’s not all. In addition to mitochondria, scientists estimate you have more than 10 trillion other microbes in your body, comprising more than 10,000 different species, and accounting for 1 to 3 percent of your body weight. Billions more live on your skin, eyes, hair, and in your blood. The realization in recent years that bacteria are vital to human health has spawned the exciting new field of medical investigation into the bacterial genome. Research is showing that the unique mix of bacteria in the human body can have a profound impact on health, and can even create personality changes.
And why shouldn’t it? The human genome has 23,000 genes composed of twisted strands of amino acids called DNA. But there are an additional two million genes in our symbiotic bacterial genome. And, like our own DNA, that bacterial genome gets passed down to our descendants and evolves as we do. In a way, we’re actually more microbial than human. Even so, all those different organisms work in concert to create a single human bounded by the barrier of a layer of skin.
That’s just our inner space. What happens when we think about the body in terms of its preprogrammed responses to the world? In most cases, the strategies that our bodies used to adapt to stress are completely outside of our conscious control. You don’t have to think about sweating when you’re working out. Your body just does it. You breathe harder at altitude when you need more oxygen. Your heart and adrenal glands respond to threats before you even have a chance to think about them—giving you extra power in a moment of need. There is an entire hidden world of human biological responses that lies beyond our conscious minds that is intrinsically linked to the environment. The blueprint for these responses is embedded in our DNA and the neural links that we start to develop after we’re born. This hidden biology is not part of our higher cognitive functions; rather it is how our unconscious body thinks about the world it inhabits.
For most of our evolutionary past, comfort was a rare treat and stress was a constant. The lower parts of our brain formed in environments where there were always physical challenges to overcome, and those challenges were part of what made us human in the first place. Despite all of our technology, our bodies are just not ready for a world so completely tamed by our desire for comfort. Without stimulation, the responses that were designed to fight environmental challenges don’t always lie dormant. Sometimes they turn inward and wreak havoc on our insides. An entire field of medical research on autoimmune diseases suggests they originate from fundamental disconnect between the outside world and an understimulated biology.
This book is largely about what happens when we reexamine our relationship with the environment and see ourselves as a part of something bigger than the comfortable spaces we mostly choose to live in. It explores how changing the environment around the body also fundamentally changes the body itself. More importantly, it shows how it is possible to manipulate our external environment to trigger autonomic responses in predictable ways. Once you realize that you can manipulate deep parts of your physiology by intentionally tweaking identifiable preprogrammed responses, you can begin to cede aspects of that automation to your consciousness.
It’s a strange claim to make for an investigative journalist who has spent much of his career trying to debunk false prophets and medical voodoo. For that matter, it’s an odd statement for a man whose spirit animal is still mostly made of “jelly.” But these findings are grounded in current science and the real lives of people around the globe who have taken control of their bodies to an extraordinary extent.
For me the journey to unlocking my own biology came at a personal low point while I was living in Long Beach, California, back in July 2012. I had been sitting in front of my computer in a desk chair for almost 8 straight hours. Palm trees gently swayed outside my window. Despite my relatively comfortable perch I had a sinking feeling that I was getting past my prime. My legs throbbed from underuse and my back ached. I told myself that as I was now approaching my mid-thirties it was perfectly normal for my stomach to sag over my belt. I thought my days of youthful, vigorous adventure were fading fast, and that this was what middle age was supposed to look like. As an American—hell, as a human—I figured that creature comforts were my best defense against the inevitabilities of growing older. A moderate amount of exercise and an occasional dip into the organic aisle of my grocery store would be sufficient to maintain at least a certain level of decorum.
That was when the internet coughed up a picture of a nearly naked man sitting on a glacier somewhere north of the Arctic Circle. It was as if this bearded gentleman 20 years my senior was thumbing his nose at what had become the defining narrative of my life. His serene blue eyes scanned the landscape and betrayed no fear of freezing to death. It was as if he’d traveled through time from ancient
A Google search revealed that his name was Wim Hof, a Dutch guru who claimed to be able to raise and lower his body temperature at will, and control his immune system with only the power of his mind. He ran a training camp in the snowy wilderness of Poland, where people from all around the world converged to study his secrets. He promised that after a short stint, he could teach someone to survive in Arctic environments with almost no gear. He said he had invented a breathing method that strengthened endurance, and that he could teach a meditation routine that would allow anyone a peek into their own hidden biology. What’s more? It only took a few days to learn. It all seemed crazy. Hof was clearly another false prophet selling overheated mumbo jumbo and miracle cures. It wasn’t like he was the first fake I’d come across. I had just completed almost a year of research on a man who had died while trying to cultivate superpowers under the tutelage of an American-born Tibetan guru in the deserts of Arizona. Ten years earlier, when I was leading a program abroad for college students in India, we did a 10-day silent meditation retreat in a holy place for Buddhism. At the end of the retreat one of my students claimed to be on the cusp of enlightenment, and that realization prompted her to commit suicide. In both cases the search for something greater proved deadly. Those cautionary experiences were the base material for two books I wrote during the first decade of my career. So you could say that I was downright wary of anyone who suggested that humans had hidden powers.
Even so, there was something strangely familiar about Hof’s training. I’d seen cognates of it all around Los Angeles. Earlier that month a friend of mine asked me to join along on an obstacle course race that ended with participants shimmying through the mud under electrified wires. I cringed at the idea and declined. Later, during a free yoga class near the beach, I saw a few hundred people costumed as Spartans in full armor charging up a nearby bluff while belting out their signature war cries. And, of course, there were the endless photos on Facebook of friends covered in mud and slogging through hellacious-looking pits of cold water. They never smiled in the photos, but you could tell that they relished overcoming the challenge of it all.
Right then I developed a plan that was as simple as it was cynical. I would travel to Poland to show that my expanding paunch was right all along: The inevitable course of human events was a steady decline into bad health and unhappiness. I was all but certain that Hof was a charlatan who capitalized on the false hope of the gullible masses.
I booked a ticket to Poland with a commission that eventually ran in Playboy magazine to try his “method” out for myself. Needless to say, I didn’t find what I was looking for. Instead I ended up embarking on my own personal transformation and what is now a 4-year-long journey to become just a little more human.