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Wim "Iceman" Hof

59 year-old Wim Hof might be a little crazy. Among his many achievements, Wim has run a marathon above the Arctic Circle, he has the world record for longest ice bath at 1 hour and 44 minutes and he's climbed Mount Everest. All while wearing nothing more than a pair of shorts (and sometimes shoes). Ok, so Wim is definitely crazy. But he also may be the key to figuring out how humans deal with pain.

Meditation and deep breathing are the tools of Wim's trade. His use of the two are helping to reveal the science behind mind over matter, or "Brain over body," as Otto Musik, the researcher who helmed the study into Hof's unique skill, puts it.

To test what is happening, they had Hof go through his deep-breathing exercises. Then they put him into in MRI machine while wearing a suit they filled with cold and hot water intermittently every 5 minutes. They found that Hof is able to trigger his brain to release cannabinoids and opioids, both of which reduce pain signals and cause the body to release dopamine and serotonin.

According to Hof himself, the self-induced analgesia, or the inability to feel pain, only lasts for a few minutes. Musik believes that because Hof's body anticipates the effect, it helps his body to maintain this state.

Contrary to Musik, Magda Osman believes that Hof's incredible abilities have more in common with the rewiring of the brain due to training, calling on a study wherein the brains of London taxi drivers were compared to those of London bus drivers. Researchers found that taxi drivers had more grey matter in their hippocampus because job requires better navigational skills and hand-eye coordination.

Still, we're left to question how Wim Hof's body can avoid damage in such brutal conditions. Afterall, human tissue freezes. Frostbite can set in. Exposure to the cold can kill. While Musik theorizes that Hof's method may reduce tissue swelling and immune reactions the truth is that no one has a real answer.

The biggest question of all, however, is how scientists can use the information they gather from Hof in the field of medicine.

Read more at Smithsonian Magazine:​

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