Study Suggests Brain Behavior Helps Give "The Iceman" Daredevil His Superhuman Powers

Wim Hof, the Iceman, at a Tedx talk in Amsterdam in 2010. Marco Derksen/Flickr; CC BY-NC 2.0

Have you heard of The Iceman? No, not the 5,300-year-old, fantastically preserved corpse, Otzi: We mean Wim Hof, a Dutchman famous for spending prolonged periods of time in, as his moniker suggests, extremely frigid environments.

Hof, who’s in his late 50s, has engaged in all kinds of chilly shenanigans. He’s run almost naked on marathons north of the Arctic Circle, scaled mountains in his underwear, and so forth. His seemingly superhuman powers have been the subject of several scientific papers – and a new study published in the journal NeuroImage suggests it may have something to do with his brain.

His personal website links his abilities to a technique of unusual breathing he himself developed. Understandably, researchers have been keen to find out what’s really going on here, physiologically speaking, but until now, much of the fascination has focused on his inhaling and exhaling.

This new study, led by a team at Wayne State University in Detroit, wanted to know what role his brain played too.

The authors stress that the ability of the body to withstand “environmental thermal challenges” is governed by the automatic nervous system (ANS). As the name suggests, this regulates plenty of bodily characteristics without any conscious input from the person themselves.

The question, then, is how is Hof seemingly “hacking” part of his own ANS? In order to find out, the team wired Hof up to several types of monitoring equipment, including magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to peer into his brain, and positron-emission tomography (PET), which tracks metabolic processes in the body.

Hof was also wearing a full-body suit which the team could inject with water at set temperatures at will. Throughout, as he engaged in his breathing technique, he was compared to a range of healthy participants in a control group.

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