Though archaeologists disagree on the exact date for man’s discovery of fire, the primitive allure that it evokes cannot be denied. Fire creates the background for so many social settings- a romantic candlelit dinner, ghost stories whispered around a campfire, and nighttime gatherings around a beach bonfire.
However, as the earliest form of energy harnessed by human beings, it has either been coaxed to provide comfort or wielded as a weapon of war. It is in this ability to control such energy that mankind is distinguished from the rest of the species on our planet, but is this mastery over fire driven by a primal affinity for it ingrained in our makeup?
Paranormal human pyrogenesis, i.e. – the ability to generate fire with one’s mind, has sparked the imagination of many individuals, as evidenced by multiple stories and characters within genres of science fiction and fantasy that revolve around such an ability. For example, most, if not all readers can appreciate the power of a well-timed Hadoken (argh, you Ken players!), and numerous characters within the comic book universe throw fire as an almost incidental afterthought. However, actual accounts of this type of fire generation are not as voluntary or as clearly defined, and in most cases, lethal.
Spontaneous human combustion has been reported through the centuries, with the first known instance reported in 1866 by Thomas Bartolin, who described the burning of a Parisian woman who literally “went up in ashes and smoke” as she lay on her straw pallet. Oddly enough, none of the surrounding material was consumed and the intense heat remained localized to where her body had been. Since then, multiple occurrences with similar characteristics, corroborated by independent coroner reports, have warranted the supposition of different explanatory theories for this phenomenon.
Is spontaneous human combustion simply a facet of an inherent human ability to generate and control heat? The human body already has the physiological capacity to thermoregulate and possesses a specialized area of the brain dedicated to that function. Known as the body’s thermostat, the hypothalamus controls the body heat generated in response to cold exposure, exercise induction or immune challenges. Thermogenesis is the natural response of the human body to raise core temperature when exposed to hypothermic conditions. Exercise induced heat generation is a natural consequence of energy released from the breakdown of fat that fuels high levels of physical activity. Fevers occur as a defensive response of the immune system where the body’s temperature is deliberately increased to inhibit the infiltration and growth of infectious microorganisms. Thus, heat generation in these contexts already exists as a natural part of human physiology.
The impact of fire on the development of contemporary society and civilization cannot be dismissed. From domestic uses in food preparation and providing warmth and comfort, to employment as a destructive tool, the principal discovery of ways to control fire is a testament to human resourcefulness and ingenuity. Whether or not fire can be generated and commandeered by occult and innate human capacity, however, remains undetermined. Until a definable and consistent cause can be ascribed to the abstruse and fatal incidences of spontaneous human combustion reported each year, these cases will continue to remain a mystery that may ultimately represent a rare and obscure aspect of human thermogenesis that remains undiscovered.