I’ve often wondered how humans could survive in the wild without the various benefits of civilization. I know that a well-trained person, or at least a competent person can survive comfortably in the wild, we have TV shows, stories, and actual accounts of that sort of thing. I mean, how can an uneducated person, perhaps a feral child, survive without all the knowledge and concepts. The fact that humans obviously survived before we had all that stuff implies that we could. Now obviously the life span was a lot shorter and lots of people died from infection, the flu, and starving to death with a broken ankle, but I think this survival also implies that the human body has a capacity for endurance that is not currently well understood, in particular the human tolerance for cold.
I’ve been seeing bits an pieces of evidence on this for years. I had an English teacher in high school who, in a fit of Thoreauvian pique, went off to live in the woods for a while. And, as winter came, he found himself more and more comfortable with the extreme cold. He told my class about giving himself outdoor sponge baths from a bucket of water that had a skim of ice on it. And when, like Thoreau, he got sick of it and went back to civilization, he had difficulty handling the sudden warmth of the city. “Sixty degrees was just too hot.”
In the incredible account of the Old Orthodox Russian family that lived in Siberia for 40 years, cut off from all human contact, the son Dmitry who had grown up in the extreme circumstances, learned to hunt barefoot in the winter, sometimes sleeping out in the open in 40 degrees. You know, the sort of situation that would kill a normal American, coddled by civilization, good footwear, and centralized heating. Tragically, having never encountered the multitude of diseases carried by us civilized folk, he died of pneumonia.
Fortunately, there has been some scientific study into this. Buddhist monks have been documented withstanding extreme temperatures through meditation. In test controlled conditions, they increase their body temperature enough to dry the wet sheets they are wrapped in, in a 40 degree room. Now they base this on their mediation technique called Tummo, which may take years of training to learn.
Further experiments have involved a certain Dutchman who has an odd hobby of setting world records for tolerating cold: Wim Hof. He also credits mediation techniques (its seems likely that he was influenced by or learned from aforementioned monks, but I just don’t know) and claims that he can affect his automatic nervous system and his autoimmune system. In the test, he and untrained volunteers were given a toxin that gave flu-like symptoms. Remarkably, he experienced measurably less inflammation and symptoms which can be traced to a very different levels of hormones that control stress reactions. However, this was of one individual, so its hard to say how meaningful this is. Wim Hof is quite sure that he can teach others to achieve the same level of tolerance. Hopefully more thorough studies will follow.