This is a repost of Science on the Rocks episode #7— an interview with Matthijs Kox, who together with Peter Pickkers conducted the renowned Radboud University study that proved Wim’s ability to voluntarily influence the autonomic nervous system. This pod is packed with insight into various physiological mechanisms that come into play when practicing the Wim Hof Method.
I think most people would agree with the idea that science and research are about finding out new stuff. And I think most people would be surprised to know how reluctant the scientific community can be when it comes to shifting old paradigms.
The idea that there is something like an “autonomous” nervous system is one of these sacred cows. It is called autonomous because normally people are unable to volitionally influence its function. It just does its thing, and we rely on it to work for us.
Existing at the fringes of our knowledge, and oftentimes labeled as kooks or charlatans, there have always been people who were able to do amazing things with their bodies. Tibetan monks have been able to withstand the cold using Tummo meditation for centuries; Indian Fakirs can breach their body hull without bleeding or contracting an infection; but aren’t they just freaks of nature? (Looking back at the firewalk I did last year at “Unleash the Power Within” I think is reason enough to doubt this idea! There were over 10,000 people and as far as I know pretty much every single person walked across one of the 2.5-meter-long lanes of smoldering embers – unharmed!)
Enter Wim Hof. Here’s a guy who claims that he is able to actually exert an influence over his autonomic bodily functions at will and who is eager for rigorous scientific study of his claims!
It’s amazing to see that Matthijs Kox, Peter Pickkers and their team from Radboud Medical Center were willing to put this matter to the test. As you will hear Matthijs say, they were quite skeptical in the beginning, but the results of their studies on Wim and a group of people he trained in Poland persuaded them to change their mind!
Wim and all of the 12 study subjects underwent a rigorous endotoxemia challenge, and all of them were able to control their immune response by employing the WHM breathing and mental focus techniques. The research team was amazed to see that the study group was developing very mild to no symptoms to an otherwise surefire way of evoking severe flu-like symptoms. More than that, they were able to jack up their adrenaline to levels higher than what you see before someone takes their first bungee jump (if you want to know more about adrenaline, check out SotR #2: "Adrenaline, Cherry Blossoms and Whiskey". Now the research team is setting out to investigate the WHM in patient groups, to see how cold immersion training and the voluntary suppression of the initial immune response —through the up-regulation of adrenaline using Wim Hof Method breathing— contributes to the health benefits described by so many WHM practitioners.
Yes, this is big! The autonomous nervous system is so common-sense that it didn’t occur to modern science to even investigate whether it is truly autonomous or not. I suspect that it will be hard to trace back the actual root of this claim, but all the medical text books say so, every medical school teaches its students that it is, therefore it must be autonomous. And of course, we need at least some common assumptions to work with so as not to question everything all the time because this would leave us incapacitated.
The results of Radboud's scientific investigation of the Wim Hof Method are nothing short of sensational because they show that Wim has actually, truly found a way to hack into the body and create health benefits with very straightforward, easy-to-apply techniques. And these results go to prove that it might be advisable to —at least once in a while— question what we think is set in stone, and be prepared to change our minds.
Dina Wittfoth is a neuroscientist & co-host of Science on the Rocks.