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Dec 01

Book Review: What Doesn’t Kill Us

What Doesn't Kill Us: How Freezing Water, Extreme Altitude and Environmental Conditioning Will Renew Our Lost Evolutionary StrengthWhat Doesn’t Kill Us: How Freezing Water, Extreme Altitude and Environmental Conditioning Will Renew Our Lost Evolutionary Strength by Scott Carney

Boy do I have mixed feelings about this book. I’ll start with the positives. How exciting is it to think that some athletes and fringe researchers have begun to discover one of the missing elements that’s creating so many of our modern problems! Being in the cold can help you lose weight and reverse autoimmune diseases? So strange! So provoking. This is the kind of stuff I eat up. It’s not just fascinating new medical science, it’s stuff you can apply to your own life.

Well, sort of.

This book begins with Carney telling us how he made his living debunking the pseudoscience so prevalent among athletes and those with more money than sense (kelp tape?). And then he meets Wim Hof, a Dutchman known as “The Iceman” who has used a combination of breathing techniques, meditation, and ice baths to develop a superhuman cold resistance. Carney sort of talks about the techniques, but since I was listening to an audiobook and not taking notes, they’re not things I think I can do. Mostly it involves taking cold showers and holding your breath while doing push-ups. Carney says when he started, he was ashamed to admit he could only do twenty push ups, which he chalked up to being middle aged. Since I’m ten years older than him and am damn proud of having worked back up to the point where I can do twenty push-ups, this is the sort of humblebrag that sets my teeth on edge. You can tell that Carney has really been swept up in the Wim Hof method. I don’t think he really explains it well enough for a reader to replicate it, but I guess that’s understandable. Hof is making a living off of his techniques, franchising and doing speaking tours. Carney was probably contractually prohibited from sharing it.

But it was still annoying. Carney talks a little bit about brown fat, and how it’s designed to burn white fat to create warmth, but how most people don’t have it anymore. But Wim Hof can basically activate it by clenching his muscles, which sounds like magic. And then Carney says that there’s research that brown fat isn’t the whole story, when it comes to cold resistance. So, okay. Carney also talks to some army researchers, and tells the story about how a half-dozen army rangers in training died of hypothermia. He hints that they are doing research into using a part of the technique he learned from Hof “the wedge” which is basically using meditation and breath control to gain more control over all autonomic systems, including immuno-response. Carney also talks about how Napoleon’s army died in Russia from cold, and relays reports of all the things that hypothermia does to you physically and mentally. But research is still out on how to prevent that, he posits, which is really disappointing. I don’t like to read pop science that says “we have this problem … and we don’t know how to solve it.” It’s like reading a murder mystery that never tells you who did it. Unsatisfying.

Carney also visits some guy who’s an expert surfer, who is also a devotee of Wim Hof. He runs an elite gym out of his house where celebrities lift weights under water and take ice baths and do other things that would probably quadruple their life insurance premiums. Then he talks about obstacle courses, such as Tough Mudder and Tough Guy, where people with more money than sense hurt themselves for the endorphin rush. (“Endorphin rush” is exactly why people go to BDSM clubs or cut themselves, but hurting yourself through physical exertion is more socially acceptable.) As you might expect from my tone, these are not my sort of people. To me, if you have to seek out suffering, your life is one of too much ease and leisure. Paying $200 to run in a muddy obstacle course where you will almost certainly get injured seems foolish and spoiled because there are so many ways for you to become exhausted that don’t cost money–such as, you know, working.

Carney visits a sports medicine guy and does a battery of tests, hoping to find out that he’s somehow superhuman, but he’s disappointed to learn he will never be an elite athlete. But because he is a noviate of the cult of Wim Hof, he has learned enough of the breathing techniques to climb Kilamanjaro shirtless, along with a group of other people, most of whom make it. They are also accompanied by porters, who also climb Kilamanjaro, but who do it to make a living rather than to prove that they “conquered” the mountain, but no one gives credit to poor, brown people who climb mountains, just to rich white ones. After he climbs the mountain, (in record time and shirtless, naturally), he goes back to the sports medicine guy who does a bunch of tests and finds out that Carney is, if not exactly superhuman, still better than an ordinary guy because of his super duper training.

So that’s kind of a happy resolution, from a memoir standpoint. Ordinary guy seeks to debunk prophet, instead becomes enraptured by prophet’s ways, learns prophet’s technique, travels the world meeting other acolytes, and eventually transforms himself into a superior man. It’s like Eat, Pray, Love for the Crossfit set. Except this is not billed as a memoir, but a book about how we can use environmental training to recover our lost evolutionary sense. And I judge books by their covers, and specifically, their titles. If you promise the book is about something, you should fulfill that promise. This book talks about how one guy uses breathing techniques and ice baths to help him with both cold tolerance and altitude tolerance. And this guy’s autonomic control is so good that he can change his immune response, and one of his acolytes was able to heal himself quickly while another one recovered from crippling rheumatoid arthritis. So if you’re reading this trying to answer the question the title promises it will answer, the only thing you could do is go to learn more about Wim Hof. Which makes it like one of those webinars where “you will learn so much” about how to solve that problem you have, and when you sit through it, you learn that really, the only way they’ll teach you what you wanted to learn is if you sign up for the very expensive course series and this thing you sat through was just an advertisement. Hof should pay Carney a commission.

I feel like the focus of this book was scattered. It talked more about people Carney admires than cold adaptation and evolutionary science. Maybe part of that is that there isn’t much science behind it. Humans, like every other mammal, are adapted to cold, because if we weren’t, we wouldn’t have made it through the last ice age. To me it’s fascinating because it’s the old idea that if you are adapted to something, even something toxic, you eventually require that thing, whether it’s cold or bauxite in the soil or periods of extreme dryness (“you” in this sentence meaning a living organism, not specifically a human.)

It would have been interesting to learn more about how people historically dealt with (or didn’t deal with) the cold. How did the Native Americans of the North East who dressed only in loincloths learn to deal with the cold? Was it just acclimatization, or did they do breathless pushups too? He does have a few minutes where he talks about it, but I wanted more. That, to me, was far, far more fascinating than the details of Carney’s hike or which celebrities think it’s a good idea to lift weights at the bottom of a pool. Because clearly if some peoples wear clothes and some people don’t, there are advantages and disadvantages to each. Like, maybe, you have to eat more if you’re not wearing furs and it’s snowing out. And if you’re not of the demographic who can afford to fly to different continents several times a year, not having to acquire more food is a significant consideration.

It also would have been interesting to learn more about altitude sickness, how some people deal with it and some don’t. The way they dealt with it was “breathe more” which seems pretty damn obvious on the face of it, but maybe it’s easier said than done. It would have been nice to touch on heat conditioning as well, not just because the book promised “environmental conditioning” but because with global warming, it’s going to be something we all think about sooner or later (though I think that flooding and disease will be more important.) As someone who was raised in the desert and suffered far too many times from sun poisoning or heat exhaustion, how to deal with excessive heat would have been a handy thing to know. For most of the world, for most of the year, cold is an exotic luxury. Tropical and subtropical people never get it, and temperate people only have it part of the year. Dunking yourself in icy water presumes you have access to both ice and water.

So the book was successful in that it gave me ideas, and piqued my interest about something I hadn’t considered before, namely, what do we lose when we don’t get cold? But it would have been far more satisfying with a different author, say, Mary Roach, who really delved deep into the subject and talked a lot about what research had been done, tying it with historical anecdotes. Instead it read like a series of long articles, a memoir with interviews of people loosely collated around the theme of “guys who admire Wim Hof.” About 30% of the book dealt with how the environment affects the human body, and the rest of it was interviews with rich people who seek out suffering because they’re trying to make themselves physically superior.

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