Holding Your Breath

Crazy stuff, courtesy of John Tierney:

The natural impulse to stop holding your breath (typically within 30 seconds or a minute) is not because of an oxygen shortage but because of the painful buildup of carbon dioxide. Mr. Blaine said he began trying to overcome that urge when he was a child in Brooklyn and at age 11 managed to hold his breath for three and a half minutes.

In his current training, he said, he does exercises every morning in which he breathes for no more than 12 minutes over the course of an hour, and he sleeps in a hypoxic tent in his Manhattan apartment that simulates the thin air at 15,000 feet above sea level.

He has been concentrating on lowering his oxygen consumption by slowing his metabolism, partly through diet (he fasted for 18 hours before the breath-hold in the pool) and partly through relaxation. In a test by Dr. Potkin, Mr. Blaine on command quickly lowered his heart rate by 25 percent.

"David seems to have a phenomenal ability, like Buddhist monks, to control his body," Dr. Potkin said.

When Mr. Blaine began his breath-hold in the pool, his heart rate during the first minute fell to 46 from 81, a drop that was not entirely his own doing. Immersing the face in water produces a protective action in humans similar to that in dolphins, seals, otters and whales. Called the mammalian diving reflex, it quickly lowers the heart rate and then constricts blood vessels in the limbs so that blood is reserved for the heart and the brain.

By exploiting that reflex, free divers can remain active underwater for more than four minutes, and much longer if they remain still. The world-record holders have exceeded nine minutes after filling their lungs with ordinary air, and more than 16 minutes after inhaling pure oxygen.

One of the best paradigms for studying this sort of extreme cognitive control - Blaine is able to ignore one of our most fundamental instincts, which is the urge to breathe - is meditation. Richard Davidson, the director of the Waisman Brain Imaging Center at the University of Wisconsin, just published a really interesting review of his research in the latest Trends in Cognitive Science. Here is the abstract:

Meditation can be conceptualized as a family of complex emotional and attentional regulatory training regimes developed for various ends, including the cultivation of well-being and emotional balance. Among these various practices, there are two styles that are commonly studied. One style, focused attention meditation, entails the voluntary focusing of attention on a chosen object. The other style, open monitoring meditation, involves nonreactive monitoring of the content of experience from moment to moment. The potential regulatory functions of these practices on attention and emotion processes could have a long-term impact on the brain and behavior.


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Free divers and other swimmers have known this for a while---many intentionally hyperventilate before diving---this lowers CO2 levels, and allows for longer breath-holding.

BTW, great post.

I found as a teenager that I could swim two lengths of a college "olympic" pool underwater -- the trick was to swim very slowly, prolonged gliding between slow kicks and strokes. I decided it was likely I was burning too many brain cells and gave it up rather than try to improve.

Probably so:

"The neural cost of high-altitude mountaineering. ... Lack of oxygen can directly damage brain cells. In addition, the walls of blood capillaries begin to ..."

By Hank Roberts (not verified) on 22 Apr 2008 #permalink

Of course, David Blaine is also a magician, who does magic tricks. Houdini was a master at getting reputable newspapers to print articles about his superhuman abilities and mystic powers. Sure, Houdini had some impressive physical skills, but he also had a master key under his tongue.

I think it's a safe bet that David Blaine spends far more time practicing illusion and misdirection than he does sleeping in a hypoxic tent.

Like the asthmatic struggling for breath, I have a hard time with Blaine being Buddha like. But I could be wrong (wheeze....wheeze...)

I found as a teenager that I could swim two lengths of a college "olympic" pool underwater -- the trick was to swim very slowly, prolonged gliding between slow kicks and strokes. I decided it was likely I was burning too many brain cells and gave it up rather than try to improve.