Can David Blaine Do It?
In his first blockbuster event in 1999, David lived in a clear coffin for a week. The coffin was buried in a New York City sidewalk. In 2000, he was encased in a block of ice in Times Square for 63 hours with no food or sleep. In 2002, he spent 36 hours standing atop a 90-foot pillar in midtown Manhattan and suffered a concussion when he leapt off into a pile of cardboard boxes. In 2003, David went to London, where he spent 44 days without food or water, suspended in a glass box hanging over the River Thames.
In 2006, David lived underwater for a week. Afterward, he tried to break the record for breath holding while trying to free himself from shackles and chains. After seven minutes, he showed signs of distress. To save his life, emergency divers had to pull him out before he could free himself.
David's latest attempt is equally dangerous. He will try to break the Guinness World Record for holding his breath underwater. The current record was set just weeks ago in Switzerland by Peter Colat. To beat him, David will have to hold his breath for more than 16 and a half minutes!
David is so committed that he even trains in his sleep. In his apartment, he has set up a hypoxic tent, which reduces the oxygen content enough to simulate being at an altitude of 15,000 feet. David sleeps in what is the equivalent of a base camp at Mount Everest. "What that does, in effect, is it builds your red blood cell count. I've been sleeping here for a month," he says.
With his leaner build and increased red blood cells, David is ready to learn his breath-holding technique. He flies to the Cayman Islands to train with free divers. Free diving is diving very deep without oxygen. After training, David is able to take a single breath and dive down to as deep as 200 feet. Will all of this preparation be enough?
In an interview the day before his world record attempt, Oprah asked David where he got the idea to attempt this dangerous record. "I think it dates back to childhood," he says. "I was on the swim team in Brooklyn at the YMCA, and I was competitive even back then. ... I remember trying to beat everybody doing lengths in the pool. The best way to do it was to not breathe. So when I was swimming the length [underwater] ... I was able to actually go faster than every other kid."
The moment David goes under, his body goes into survival mode. His blood starts to move away from his extremities and flow toward his heart and brain. This ensures that oxygen is available for the two most vital organs in his body.
Dr. Ralph Potkin, the pulmonologist who has been monitoring David's training, says his ability to hold his breath for this length of time is incredible. "He's been training, but most importantly, David is very motivated," he says. "He's got great control of his mind over his body."
As blood concentrates in his chest cavity, David's lungs shrink by almost 30 percent. During this time, the heart also senses that oxygen is in short supply and begins to beat less often. David slows his heart rate even further through mind control. "The slower the heart rate, the less oxygen you use, and so [it's] very beneficial in this oxygen-deprived state to have his heart rate real slow," Dr. Potkin says.
As toxic carbon dioxide builds up in the body, Dr. Potkin says David's mind is able to block out the uncomfortable sensation. "This is mind over body, there's no question about it," he says. "This is a very Zen or meditative sport."
After 12 minutes of pure oxygen, Dr. Potkin says David's heart rate remains higher than he'd like. When it hits 106 beats per minute, Dr. Potkin says David's heart usually begins to slow to around 50 beats at this point. "That's going to be a problem if he doesn't settle down because he's using up more oxygen," he says. "This whole thing is about slowing the heart rate down. I expect that David's heart rate's going to be in the 40s, 30s, maybe even down to the 20s."
Dr. Potkin says most doctors would be highly concerned about letting someone's heart rate drop so low. "We talked about what level we should pull him out for medical reasons, and David says he wants to push to the limit—down to 10 beats per minute," he says. "There aren't many doctors who can sit around and watch somebody with a heart rate of 10 beats per minute."
In his preshow interview, Oprah asked David why he's doing something so dangerous. Does he have some kind of death wish?
"No, no, no, no, no. The opposite," he says. "There is a lot of risk, but I meet experts in the field, and I learn. I like to find out what we are capable of pushing ourselves to do and then studying it with the people that have done it."
"He's filled up his lungs totally as much as they can be with air. He's forcing air into his lungs from the top of the lungs. They're already filled as much as they can be," he says. "Pulmonary doctors a year or so ago didn't even think this was possible that somebody could increase [his] lung size voluntarily. As he does this, his lungs are re-expanding, and his blood pressure and his heart rate can dramatically change as well."
With the clock ticking away, David remains motionless in his 20,000-pound sphere. Every slight movement uses his oxygen, which is made even more precious by David's high heart rate. Steady at around 100 beats per minute, David's heart rate has dropped slightly, but it's still higher than what Dr. Potkin would like it to be.
After an unbelievable eight minutes without breathing, David gets his first time notification from Mandy-Rae and Kirk, two free divers who have helped him with his training. "Until now, he doesn't really know how long he's been holding his breath," Mandy-Rae says. "Now, Kirk is going to start letting him know every once in a while."
During practice dives, David says he could feel carbon dioxide building up in his body as the clock ticked closer to 16 minutes. "That's when it's the fight," he says. "I would say the last six minutes is when—even though I have to remain perfectly still—I'm actually fighting the hardest. If you see me start to do these convulsions, then that's the real hard part."
David says it's so difficult because the body has a natural urge to breathe. "It's overwhelming," he says. "You're fighting really hard to override what your brain is telling you your body needs to do."
When the pain starts to build, David says he tries to remove himself from the moment. "I imagine getting sucked into the abyss of the ocean almost," he says. "I don't have any thoughts. I empty everything out and become perfectly still."
Sinking into another level of consciousness allows David to slow his heart rate and change the way he experiences time. "When the heart rate slows down, everything slows down. Time changes during that," he says. "It doesn't feel like 16 minutes, which is a good length of time. It feels more like one moment compressed."
Though things aren't going exactly as they planned, Dr. Potkin still has confidence in David's ability and believes he'll break the record. "Maybe he'll go to 18 or 20 [minutes]," he says. "Who knows?"
David's face looks calm, but Dr. Potkin says he's probably experiencing serious abdominal discomfort and diaphragm spasms at this point. "He's having pain, no question," he says.
With just one minute to go, David's heart rate starts to slow significantly. It drops from more than 100 beats per minute to 70...then 60. Dr. Potkin also notices an irregular heart rhythm. "There's low oxygen in the body, and his body's responding," he says. "He's in a survival mode right now."
As the clock passes 16 minutes, David rises to the top of the sphere and rests right below the surface. "Come on," Oprah says. "You can do it. You can do it!"
Oprah and the audience hold their breaths as the final seconds tick down.
Watch the pressure-filled final test!
Although the experience was intense, David emerges safely and says he feels great. "I feel slightly emotional. I feel good about it and pretty happy," he says. "I can't believe that I did that."
At one point, he says he had a moment of doubt when he noticed his heart rate was higher than normal. "I was going to fight hard, but I was not sure," he says. "I'd never done it with such a high heart rate."
The beeping heart monitor also made David aware of his irregular heart beat, which he says is why he floated toward the surface at the end.
During an extended breath-holding exercise, David usually meditates and reaches another state of consciousness—but not this time. For almost the entire 17 minutes, he says he was aware of his surroundings. He even opened his eyes at one point to focus on the studio's lights. "The lights were actually helpful," he says. "There were flecks of light on the sphere, and I was using that to kind of try to meditate a little bit."
When things get tough, David says he thinks of his deceased mother. "I always feel her with me," he says. In honor of the woman who raised him, he says he would have liked to hold his breath for 23 minutes. "That's a crazy dream. That's my mother's birth date and a lucky number in my life."
Now that he's tested the human body's lung capacity, what will he put himself through next? David reveals that he'd like to try to claim the world record for staying awake the longest. The current record is 11 and a half days. "So 11.57 days would be a million seconds," he says.
When David encased himself in an ice block in 2000, he says the cold was not the most difficult thing to endure. It was the sleep deprivation that nearly drove him mad. "It was the most difficult endurance thing that I'd ever played with, and I was always kind of afraid of it," he says. "I think after three or four days without sleep ... I was hallucinating, so it was a beautiful and a crazy and intense experience, but it was also scary to not have control."