The Science of 17 Minutes

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As you can hear about in his TED Talk, David Blaine’s record-breaking 2008 feat was the result of detailed scientific planning and months of careful experimentation. (The performance he’s rehearsing at LSC incorporates the same principles – only while trying to leave some oxygen over for entertainment and fun).

Below are some of the scientific keys to extreme breath-holding:

  • Loading up on pure O2. Before submerging, extreme breath-holders take in pure oxygen for as much as 30 minutes in order to prepare the lungs for the upcoming challenge. The record for holding one’s breath after breathing pure oxygen is almost double the record for those who prepare with normal air (around 9 minutes).
  • Lung-packing”: the divers’ technique of swallowing oxygen beyond breathing capacity. Although uncomfortable, humans can actually swallow additional air even after completing their deepest possible breath in. This technique, which deep-sea divers have been using for decades, allows the breath-holder to take in another quart of oxygen above their normal lung capacity.
  • Overcoming the body’s painful oxygen conservation responses. The human body responds to being plunged into cold water by cutting off excess blood supply to the extremities in order to direct maximum oxygen to the abdomen and brain. This diminished blood supply in the extremities creates painful muscle spasms which last and intensify until oxygen flow is restored.
  • The Zen factor. As David explains in his talk, getting nervous or excited only increases your heart rate, requiring additional oxygen and making it more difficult to remain functioning underwater. As a result, one of the most crucial ingredients to a successful hold is simply staying calm in order to reduce the pulse – not an easy task.

(More on the science of breath-holding in Time Magazine’s related article.)

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