For most non-medical people, the term “apnea” is most familiar when coupled
with the word “sleep,” and refers to a dangerous condition in which people
inadvertently stop breathing while asleep. But the word literally means a
temporary cessation of breathing and it is practiced around the
world by an international community of extreme athletes a brotherhood that
now includes magician and stuntman David Blaine. On the set of The Oprah
Winfrey Show on April 30, Blaine broke the world record by holding his
breath for 17 minutes and 4 seconds proving that just how temporary apnea
can be is a question of training, endurance and will.
An average person in good health can hold his breath for about two
minutes, but with even small amounts of practice it is possible to increase
that time dramatically. “The body can be trained,” explains Dr. Ralph
Potkin, a pulmonary specialist who worked with Blaine in the weeks leading
up to his recent feat.
When you deprive your body of oxygen, it is only a matter of time before
your carbon dioxide levels build, triggering a reflex that will cause your
breathing muscles including the diaphragm and the muscles between the
ribs to spasm. The pain of these spasms is what causes most people to gulp
for breath after just a couple of minutes. When holding your breath
underwater, however, you have a bit of mammalian evolution on your side.
When humans are submerged in cold water, our bodies instinctively prepare to
conserve oxygen, much in the way that dolphins’ and whales’ bodies do when
they dive. “Heart rate drops, blood pressure goes up and circulation gets
redistributed,” Potkin says. The body’s focus becomes getting the oxygenated
blood primarily to the vital organs the brain and the heart and not the
extremities or abdomen.
This reflex can help us conserve the oxygen we do have, but it doesn’t do
much for the painful muscle spasms. Overcoming those is a matter of
concentration and meditation. “This is one of those Zen sports,” Potkin
Suppressing the powerful pain impulse too successfully can prove deadly:
subjects can continue holding their breath up to the point that their brains
shut down from lack of oxygen. If you’re 100 feet under water or even three
feet underwater in a pool it’s not a good time to pass out. In order to
break the world record, Blaine had to hold his breath without fainting.
That of course, is down to months of rigorous training, including practicing
a technique called glossopharyngeal insufflation, or lung packing. In order
to maximize the amount of air taken into the lungs before apnea, Blaine,
among other divers, inhaled until his lungs were filled to their
physiological capacity, and then forced additional air into the lungs by
swallowing, hard. Using this technique, Blaine was able to cram
another quart’s worth of air into his already full lungs, Potkin estimates.
In a study of five elite free divers, who descend to scuba-diving
depths without the aid of equipment, Potkin found that the lung packing was
“associated with deeper dives and longer holding times.”
Of course, another factor associated with longer holding times is the
consumption of pure oxygen beforehand. The world record for holding your
breath after inhaling pure oxygen is now Blaine’s 17 minutes and 4 seconds.
The record without the pure oxygen, which Blaine failed to break during an
attempt last year in Manhattan’s Lincoln Center, is 8 minutes and 58
With or without pure oxygen, holding your breath is a difficult and
dangerous pastime even for elite athletes. When not done carefully, it can
lead to drowning, or to potential tissue damage in the heart, brains or
lungs. Preliminary results from Potkin’s research into apnea’s long-term
effects show some abnormal brain scans among young, extreme free divers.
There’s still much to learn about the phenomenon; as a medical student,
Potkin recalls, he was told that no one could hold his breath for more than
five minutes without suffering brain damage. Now, he wants to see if the
technique can be used for medical purposes and he’s hoping Blaine’s latest
stunt provides the impetus for a greater scientific understanding of how to
hold one’s breath.