Wim Hof, “the Iceman,” practices cold exposure in order to accomplish incredible feats: climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in shorts, for example. He also holds the world record for a barefoot half marathon above the Arctic Circle, and standing in an ice cube-covered container for more than 112 minutes.
Reporter Scott Carney’s investigative and participatory journalism book, What Doesn’t Kill Us, delves into Hof's methods, and explores how far humans have strayed from our evolutionary roots and the implications that has on our health. "The developed world—and, for that matter, much of the developing world—no longer suffers from diseases of deficiency," he told Spine. "Instead we get the diseases of excess.”
Humans find ourselves in a homeostatic environment, year-round. During cold winters, we are encouraged to bundle up and stay inside, to avoid the unfortunate fate of freezing to death. In the summer, when it's sweltering and our skin glistens in sweat, we've grown accustomed to (and usually welcome) frigid air from AC units. Unlike our primordial ancestors, we no longer have to face the food scarcity of winter, or the frigid temperatures that come with it. In his book, Carney argues we can regain our lost evolutionary strength by stimulating the environmental conditions of our forebears and utilize extreme cold to cure autoimmune diseases, lose weight, and reverse diabetes.
Carney's book, and the adventure he embarks on in it, began with a few weeks of typical investigative journalism, following Hof, and evolved into an expedition that involved not only writing and research, but also undertaking his own extreme feats akin to Hof's own.
"After meeting Wim and working with him for a few weeks in Poland, it became my quest to find ways and the biological reasons behind that. That was part of the 8-year journey: doing the method and experiencing different natural stresses," Carney said.
In his book, Carney describes climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, in a record-setting 28 hours, in nothing but shorts—a potentially deadly feat. He wasn’t sure whether he was venturing with Hof the Prophet or Hof the Madman. Later, when he wrote the book, he took great care to present Hof as someone readers could learn from, but should not try to imitate.
Hof wasn’t afraid to leave people behind to crush the record (22 out of the 29 initial voyagers made it to their ultimate destination. The others suffered from Acute Mountain Sickness.) “The reason why I included this moment in the last chapter, where he almost gets the whole group killed, is because we shouldn’t put Wim on a pedestal. We should acknowledge that he has something that’s very, very special, but at the same time, he’s sort of a crazy guy. And if you take him as a sort of an infallible guru, which is sort of a fear of mine, that people look at him as if he’s perfect, then it’s going to lead into danger. Because Wim is a Madman,” said Carney.
In addition to exploring Wim Hof and his methods, Carney also delves into Brown Adipose Tissue (BAT), known as “brown fat” or “good fat,” which turns food into heat. Carney examined recent research into BAT, and how that figured into the larger picture of the 21st century human body's relationship to its environment, and especially humanity's struggle with increasing numbers of autoimmune illnesses. Throughout his writing process, Carney interviewed scientists, experts in the field, and people that have experiences that made him question some of his underlying assumptions. With BAT, Carney looked through the academic and scientific literature, and interviewed the scientists on the studies to see what their insights were.
Carney's ultimate hope for the book is that it becomes a part of a necessary conversation about the body, about physical stress and autoimmunity, and about how to move forward.
“One of my insights is that we are actually the environment. The sensations you feel are a reflection of the spaces you inhabit. … That can be a very deep thought, that can be a very spiritual thought, where you think that your choices really do reflect on your physiology, and they create the way you experience and think about the world at large.”
Caroline Kurdej is a Graduate Student at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. Last spring, Kurdej worked as an intern for Dzanc Books, and currently provides writing services to iMiller Public Relations. You can find her work online at carolinekurdej.journoportfolio.com.