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A famous picture depicts Quang Duc self-immolating himself in protest of the Vietnam War. David Halberstram: "As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound [...]. His face seemed to remain fairly calm until it was so blackened by the flames that you couldn’t make it out anymore." I'm ignoring shock and hormonal responses in this question, as he remained calm during the initial stage of the burning (where these effects are unlikely to have been live). I'm also (perhaps wrongly) assuming that he wasn't under the influence of drugs and didn't have a cognitive impairment that made him unable to feel the pain.

A question like this has been asked before on Quora, but I'm not satisfied by any of the given answers. Specifically:

  • Based on personal/anecdotal experiences, I'm not convinced that confidence/motivation/conviction or any rationalization is able to trigger this ability.

  • I also don't see how one can use deliberate practice in this task (i.e., build up tolerance with systematic desensitization or connecting the pain signal with positive thoughts/experiences) without seriously damaging the body.

  • I'm also not convinced that traditional/standard mindfulness meditation has this kind of efficacy. I remember seeing various efficacy quantities of mindfulness meditation (and therapy) in a meta study and none of them seemed to be at the quantity required to remain calm in response to this extreme stimulus.

  • I'm also skeptical that detachment is viable in this scenario, given the sheer magnitude of the nociceptive stimulus (also, I was under the impression that Buddhist meditation advises the practitioner to be aware to the pain, not detach from it).

  • If the explanation is elevated gamma-wave activity, how does one reliably reach this state "on-demand" and how does one maintain it during the endurance of significant nociceptive pain?

I should note that I'm not sure how different the mindfulness-based techniques of today are from the Buddhist meditation practiced by Quang Duc.

Perhaps the research shows that one of the points I'm skeptical about is actually effective in remaining calm in the face of extreme pain. If so, I'd love to hear about it.

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    $\begingroup$ I was once told that the fire will harm the skin (and painreceptors) in such a degree, that the pain cannot be felt anymore. In the Bradford fire a football supporter was in flames but walked extremely calmly. I guess he did not know/feel that he was in flames. The link is a youtube video, and quite horrendous so if you have a week stomach do not watch it. The men in flames can be seen from 4:57 . $\endgroup$ – Robin Kramer Aug 18 '16 at 6:14
  • $\begingroup$ Mindfulness meditation is related to and inspired by Buddhist meditation. However, mindfulness meditation as practiced by members of the general public is not the same thing as the dedicated practice of monks. Quang Duc dedicated 60 years to Buddhist practice ( from the time he lived with his uncle to start learning, through taking vows at 15 and becoming a monk at 20, until his death at 66). Comparing this to mindfulness meditation practiced by lay people is like comparing children racing each other down the street to Usain Bolt. $\endgroup$ – John Yetter Aug 18 '16 at 16:51
  • $\begingroup$ @RobinKramer: I have seen another horrifying video of another person being burnt alive and I have never before heard or seen anyone more distressed. Despite the effects of hormones and the damage to neurons, I would expect there to be extreme pain at some phase of the burning. $\endgroup$ – Wuschelbeutel Kartoffelhuhn Aug 18 '16 at 17:01
  • $\begingroup$ @JohnYetter: I would bet that Quang Duc is significantly more experienced that any of the people surveyed in the meta study. I also believe that there are diminishing returns from meditation frequency and duration (w.r.t. building up calmness in response to extreme pain). To use your analogy, Usain Bolt is only 1 second faster than the high school state champion and he's really close to the theoretical limit of peak running speed for the unaltered human body. $\endgroup$ – Wuschelbeutel Kartoffelhuhn Aug 18 '16 at 17:04
  • $\begingroup$ A skeptical observation would be that he wasn't calm, but managed to stay still until his muscle was paralyzed. It's hard to see how his face was in the clip. Anyway, The article The Brain of Buddha has an experiment about pain in mindfulness state, you can check it out. Also, can it be that thinking deeply about something can make you forget the pain? Like how we stay on screen and forget our hungry stomach? $\endgroup$ – Ooker May 20 '18 at 15:34
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[H]ow does one reliably reach this state "on-demand" and how does one maintain it during the endurance of significant nociceptive pain?

It seems that activating the gamma wave on-demand is the key to withstand the pain. But how? No one knows.

From Koch, The Brain of the Buddha, American Scientific, 2013:

Gamma activity in these monks is the largest seen in nonpathological conditions and 30 times greater than in the novices. The more years the monks had been practicing meditation, the stronger the (normalized) power in the gamma band.


Related:

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As mentioned in Can calmness happen during the fight-flight response?, with looking at the possibility of calmness during stress and trauma, you only have to look at the situation with rape victims and soldiers witnessing severe traumatic events who dissociate (Ellert, et al. 2011)(Waller, et al. 2001) during the event.

Dissociation is a psychological defence mechanism (Cardeña, 1994) which helps the person to get through the situation with as little harm as possible. Think about it like throwing a switch on conscious awareness.

Whilst some define dissociation as a combination of 2 distinct psychological mechanisms (Brown, 2006), the psychobiological mechanism of dissociation is little understood; but, when someone is dissociated from the event, the detachment of conscious awareness from the event can make the person appear very calm.

With Thích Quảng Đức, I would hypothesise that he somehow managed to "mentally switch off from the event" by dissociating through detachment. Quảng Đức set light to himself as a protest because he felt there was no other way to convey such a strong message. As far as he believed, he had no choice, just like rape victims and soldiers can have no choice.

The thing with the football fan at the Bradford Fire @Robin mentioned, was that he was inevitably pumped full of adrenaline from his adrenal glands to assist in the Flight/Fright response. Cortisol is also released at the same time and Cortisol is good for numbing any present pain in order for you to flee.

Fear of impending pain could activate the flight/fight response releasing the Adrenaline and Cortisol which could be what was happening in the scenario mentioned in the question.

Needless to say that once the Cortisol has lowered he will feel the pain caused.

References

Brown, R. J. (2006). Different types of “dissociation” have different psychological mechanisms. Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, 7(4), 7-28.
DOI: 10.1300/J229v07n04_02

Cardeña, E. (1994) The domain of dissociation. In: Dissociation: Clinical and theoretical aspects, Edited by: Lynn, S. J. and Rhue, J. W. 5–31. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Ellert R. S. Nijenhuis PhD & Onno van der Hart PhD (2011) Dissociation in Trauma: A New Definition and Comparison with Previous Formulations, Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, 12(4), 416-445.
DOI: 10.1080/15299732.2011.570592

Waller, G., Hamilton, K., Elliott, P., Lewendon, J., Stopa, L., Waters, A., ... & Hargreaves, I. (2001). Somatoform dissociation, psychological dissociation, and specific forms of trauma. Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, 1(4), 81-98.
DOI: 10.1300/J229v01n04_05

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    $\begingroup$ I appreciate your response and I'm convinced that hormones are highly effective in inhibiting pain. I already responded to Robin's comment about the nerve cells dying. Quang Duc remained calm during the entire process. Should I really believe that during every phase of the process, he had hormones on his side or (inclusive OR) his nerve cells were dead? I would bet that he felt extreme pain for some duration at least, and he was able to master his calm response in this duration. That's the phase I'm interested in. $\endgroup$ – Wuschelbeutel Kartoffelhuhn Aug 18 '16 at 17:12
  • $\begingroup$ Can calmness happens during the fight-flight response? $\endgroup$ – Ooker May 18 '18 at 8:12
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    $\begingroup$ @Ooker Anecdotally, I’ve had to deal with extreme family emotional trauma. On a few occasions, instead of freaking out, I went from high anxiety to uncharacteristically calm, but it wasn’t a conscious act. $\endgroup$ – dhchdhd May 19 '18 at 11:00
  • $\begingroup$ @Barry I thought that calmness (or "peacefulness", "mindfulness") always goes with consciousness? Is what you are describing more like "numb"? $\endgroup$ – Ooker May 19 '18 at 19:10
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    $\begingroup$ The question of whether or not Quảng Đức had time to deeply think about it before he set himself alight is down to speculation. The main point is neither he or soldiers etc. had any ability to consent. When you have no choice, or even believe there is no choice, there is no consent involved as consent involves choice. You could argue that soldiers had a choice to enlist in the armed forces or not, but then do they really have a choice when they feel that defence of your own country is paramount? $\endgroup$ – Chris Rogers May 28 '18 at 14:09

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