Full text of David Blaine on How I held my breath for 17 min at TEDMED conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: MP3 – David Blaine on How I held my breath for 17 min
As a magician, I try to create images that make people stop and think. I also try to challenge myself to do things that doctors say are not possible. I was buried alive in New York City in a coffin, buried alive in a coffin in April 1999, for a week. I lived there with nothing but water. And it ended up being so much fun that I decided I could pursue doing more of these things.
The next one is I froze myself in a block of ice for three days and three nights in New York City. That one was way more difficult than I had expected. The one after that, I stood on top of a hundred-foot pillar for 36 hours. I began to hallucinate so hard that the buildings that were behind me started to look like big animal heads.
So, next I went to London. In London I lived in a glass box for 44 days with nothing but water. It was, for me, one of the most difficult things I’d ever done, but it was also the most beautiful. There were so many skeptics, especially the press in London, that they started flying cheeseburgers on helicopters around my box to tempt me. So, I felt very validated when the New England Journal of Medicine actually used the research for science.
My next pursuit was I wanted to see how long I could go without breathing, like how long I could survive with nothing, not even air. I didn’t realize that it would become the most amazing journey of my life.
As a young magician, I was obsessed with Houdini and his underwater challenges. So, I began, early on, competing against the other kids, seeing how long I could stay underwater while they went up and down to breathe, you know, five times, while I stayed under on one breath. By the time I was a teenager, I was able to hold my breath for three minutes and 30 seconds. I would later find out that was Houdini’s personal record.
In 1987, I heard of a story about a boy that fell through ice and was trapped under a river. He was underneath, not breathing for 45 minutes. When the rescue workers came, they resuscitated him and there was no brain damage. His core temperature had dropped to 77 degrees. As a magician, I think everything is possible. And I think if something is done by one person, it can be done by others. I started to think, if the boy could survive without breathing for that long, there must be a way that I could do it.
So, I met with a top neurosurgeon. And I asked him, how long is it possible to go without breathing, like how long could I go without air? And he said to me that anything over six minutes you have a serious risk of hypoxic brain damage. So, I took that as a challenge, basically.
My first try, I figured that I could do something similar, and I created a water tank, and I filled it with ice and freezing cold water. And I stayed inside of that water tank hoping my core temperature would start to drop. And I was shivering. In my first attempt to hold my breath, I couldn’t even last a minute. So, I realized that was completely not going to work.
I went to talk to a doctor friend — and I asked him, “How could I do that? I want to hold my breath for a really long time. How could it be done?” And he said, “David, you’re a magician, create the illusion of not breathing, it will be much easier.”
So, he came up with this idea of creating a rebreather, with a CO2 scrubber, which was basically a tube from Home Depot, with a balloon duct-taped to it, that he thought we could put inside of me, and somehow be able to circulate the air and rebreathe with this thing in me. This is a little hard to watch. But this is that attempt. So, that clearly wasn’t going to work.
Then I actually started thinking about liquid breathing. There is a chemical that’s called perflubron. And it’s so high in oxygen levels that in theory you could breathe it. So, I got my hands on that chemical, filled the sink up with it, and stuck my face in the sink and tried to breathe that in, which was really impossible. It’s basically like trying to breathe, as a doctor said, while having an elephant standing on your chest. So, that idea disappeared.
Then I started thinking, would it be possible to hook up a heart/lung bypass machine and have a surgery where it was a tube going into my artery, and then appear to not breathe while they were oxygenating my blood? Which was another insane idea, obviously.
Then I thought about the craziest idea of all the ideas: to actually do it. To actually try to hold my breath past the point that doctors would consider you brain dead. So, I started researching into pearl divers. You know, because they go down for four minutes on one breath. And when I was researching pearl divers, I found the world of free-diving. It was the most amazing thing that I ever discovered, pretty much. There is many different aspects to free-diving. There is depth records where people go as deep as they can. And then there is static apnea. That’s holding your breath as long as you can in one place without moving. That was the one that I studied.