Holding your breath like David Blaine (and Tim Ferriss!)

Reading Maggie's fascinating post today about the "science of free diving," I was reminded of a section I just read in Tim Ferriss's book "The 4-Hour Body: An Uncommon Guide to Rapid Fat-Loss, Incredible Sex, and Becoming Superhuman," which I'm thoroughly enjoying. Tim talks about meeting David Blaine at a TEDMED conference (video above) where he asked him how he was able to hold his breath for 17 minutes and 4.4 seconds, a world record at the time. Blaine kindly taught Tim and a dozen others his method. From Tim's blog:

 Wp-Content Uploads 4Hrbodycover What were the results of his training?

My first baseline test: 40 seconds.

15 minutes later: 3 minutes and 33 seconds (!!!).

Out of roughly 12 TEDMED attendees he also taught, all but one beat Harry Houdini’s lifelong record of 3 minutes and 30 seconds. One woman held her breath for more than 5 minutes.

Don't try this at home, but here's Tim Ferriss on "How to Hold Your Breath Like David Blaine, World Record Holder (and Now, Me)"


    1. Yeah, he says, “don’t do this”, for good reason. It is not safe. It is pointless. Wouldn’t it suck to have a stroke or other serious health consequences from doing something as pointless as this? It’s self-suffocation and is about as safe as being choked.

      It’s cool that it’s possible but DON’T DO IT!

  1. Houdini has since beaten his lifelong record of holding his breath. Now at 83 years, 3 months, 7 days, and counting.

  2. A stage magician who performs a stunt and he tells you the secret to appearing to hold your breath underwater is to actually hold your breath. Who believes this?

    Since The Masked Magician gave a perfectly good reveal years ago which involves hiding a tube behind an assistant’s hand (just like Blaine uses), we’d have to be doubly gullible to think that it was for real.

  3. I was hoping it’d be a little more useful than, “here’s how to deprive your brain of oxygen.” I guess it could be handy if you have some time to prepare before your submarine floods and you intend to wait for your friend’s submarine to come pick you up, which I admit is a pretty common situation.

    1. … wait for your friend’s submarine to come pick you up, which I admit is a pretty common situation.

      It wouldn’t be such a common situation, except we live in a Nanny State which insists that every citizen must purchase and maintain a miniature submarine.

      If we’d only let the Invisible Hand give those submarines a good squeeze, the market would naturally correct itself in short order.

    2. This is why I told my brother, who graduated from the Navy’s nuke school, to not get on a sub. Every damn sub movie is about people trying to escape as each compartment fills up one by one.

      So – he did that well freaked out for most of it. I wonder if he really was able to enter a state of mediation or Nirvanna how long he could go.

  4. 4 minutes, 11 seconds. Almost double my previous best. I love the ABC name trick. I think that made a big difference. It was exciting to open my eyes after Z (for zed) and see the clock at 3:30.

    I always thought David Blane had a funny way of being showy, but I really liked his talk. I feel like I get him a little better now.

    1. I just can’t believe that it’s just determination and practice that get him through these things. I guess that’s the reason he breaks down a bit at the end.

      I had the same opinion, I’ll admit for no real reason, and this changed that. It’s hard to call a guy like that who’s clearly quite nervous about talking in front of a large group of people (and doing an excellent job hiding it and preparing well, which I guess is his main trick), mumbling away, talking about his sincere experiences, and come away with “showy”.

      Great TED talk, as always.

  5. Technically NOT free-diving, but still some remarkable breath control – and a beautiful film too:

  6. I used to do those breath holding exercises as part of my martial arts training. I haven’t done them for a while but I did experience the effects but I didn’t do it until I got headaches.

  7. Tall, skinny white male smokers take note:

    Do not attempt with previously undiagnosed blebs.

    NURSE!!! Scalpel and a chest tube, STAT! STAT!!!!

  8. While this is a remarkable feat, please do not try to copy this by purging/ hyperventilating. Back in the days the freediving sport suffered a lot of victims, due to shallow water blackout – read: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shallow_water_blackout
    (we all had one guy in the class with a chipped tooth, remember? think Michael Hutchence)
    The professionals do yoga, patience and commitment – the magicians do tricks.

    And the bit of pedantry: Breathing pure oxygen before diving is not counted as an official world record.
    More info here:

  9. In high school I routinely held my breath for four or five minutes to amuse myself in class; my only technique was that at the time I was really good at ignoring that body’s desperate cries for help (and therefore wore shorts and short sleeves with frost on the ground, took doxycycline on an empty stomach, and held my breath for funsies in Algebra II). Since then though I’ve stopped playing saxophone and discovered the terrible, terrible hookah, so I’m not gonna risk falling pitifully short of my old record, David Blaine tips or no.

  10. While I think holding your breath for 17 minutes is all sort of ridiculous, and trying will probably kill most people, I believe that some of the breathing exercises he’s talking about can really help. After I quit smoking I used some of these techniques to help rebuild my lung capacity and strength, and I think it’s helped me simply feel better than I did before I started smoking.

  11. Some of these deep breathing techniques exploit the neural circuitry of your bodies homeostatic need to breathe. This is the “why” of being able to hold your breath so long- the “need” to breathe that you feel when holding your breath is not due to low Oxygen levels, it is instead sensed by chemoreceptors detecting CO2 buildup. By hyperventilating beforehand, you reduce the amount of CO2 in your blood, which gives you a larger margin of CO2 that is able to accumulate before your brain tells you that you need to breathe. This is dangerous, as you are able to force your brain into hypoxia (low oxygen levels) and pass out before you would feel the need to breathe due to CO2 accumulation. Our colleges physiology lab shows students this and allows them to test themselves with it, my first try I got around 4 minutes.

    1. Like Anon says above, the reason this is dangerous is because you are tricking your body.

      Your body cannot sense oxygen. There are no oxygen receptors in the brain. If you removed all the oxygen from your blood and replaced it with, say, carbon monoxide, you wouldn’t feel a thing or sense any shortness of breath until you passed out and died.

      Instead your body senses carbon dioxide. When you hold your breath, the levels of CO2 in your blood increase, and this implicitly warns the body that it’s running out of oxygen. The levels of CO2 in your blood are being monitored as a proxy for monitoring the oxygen.

      Hyperventilating (all these deep breathing exercises) removes all the base CO2 from your blood. This means that, while your O2 is slowly dwindling away, suffocating you, your CO2 isn’t yet high enough to register the alarm signals in your brain. You think you can last another minute, but only because your brain has no way to tell that you’ve run out of O2 and are suffocating.

      This is why this method is so dangerous. Because you’ve essentially removed the alarm mechanism that your brain uses to know when you’re suffocating, and so you simply don’t know you are, until you pass out.

  12. Is it just me or does anyone else feel like Tim Ferriss is an insufferable huckster? Someone convince me I’m wrong.

  13. Don’t try this at home – do a freediving course. After the first day, almost everybody makes 3:30 or more. And remember, never try this stuff alone.

    1. I don’t know, I think I’d rather pass out quietly on my couch, than potentially drown in a shallow pool with a dozen observers.

  14. 2nd grade – 1976.

    My buddy Jay says “I’ve been practicing holding my breath so I can be a Navy diver. I can hold it for three minutes!”

    I say, “Cool, I’ll watch the clock and time you”.

    A minute and a half later:

    Thunk! Jay falls out of his lime green plastic chair and gets to go home for the rest of the day.

    Those Navy guys have all the luck.

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