It’s over. TEDMED just ended with yesterday’s morning session of talks by Ken Kamler, surgeon and mountaineer, oceanographer Dave Gallo, another short talk by VisualMD founder Alexander Tsiaras, an insightful talk by David Blaine, who told the story behind how he held his breath for 17 minutes and 4.4 seconds, and a closing performance by Jill Sobule.
Kicking off the morning theme of extreme feats, surgeon Ken Kamler told us about some of his experiences climbing Mount Everest and the sort of medicine, or lack of medicine, they’re able to practice at such heights. Medications commonly used on Everest are simply steroids and pain killers. After Ken, oceanographer Dave Gallo gave a talk about his ocean exploration that had stunning imagery (take a look at videos from his previous TED talks) and spoke of the ocean’s health as being indicative of human health.
But by far the highlight of the morning was David Blaine, who gave a fascinating, candid, and behind the scenes talk about what it took to hold his breath for 17 minutes and 4.4 seconds. Richard Saul Wurman, in introducing him, mentioned that David was extremely nervous for the talk, as he doesn’t generally give presentations in front of people, rather he just does magic. In fact, this was the first time David had spoken in front of a large audience. Yet David was calm, humble, and reflective on stage, and he opened by talking about a little teaching session he did the night before with some members of the TEDMED audience. At the end of yesterday, he asked ten people to stay afterward so he could teach them breathing techniques to help them learn how to hold their breath too. The basic strategy David discussed was to not move a single muscle when holding one’s breath and purge off as much CO2 as possible by essentially hyperventilating. The body has two molecular signals that lets it know it needs to breath, oxygen concentration, and carbon dioxide concentration. When oxygen concentration is low, your body wants to breathe, but also when carbon dioxide concentration is high, your body wants to breathe, in order rid itself of the CO2. When you hyperventilate, you breathe off much of your CO2 and it makes holding your breath much easier. With this training, David was able to get members of the audience, with no prior experience in holding their breath, to do so for 4 minutes.
David went on to talk about his own journey toward breaking the world record for holding one’s breath. After his surgeon friend told David he’d have irreversible brain damage if he held his breath for over 6 minutes, he started by brainstorming all sorts of cooky ideas to create a breath holding illusion: a tube device that would filter out CO2 that they tried to shove down David’s throat and breathing through a liquid that’s high in O2 content. When none of those worked he decided to actually give it a go, and met up with an ocean free diver to help him train. To prep for his famous and failed Lincoln Center attempt, he lost weight and slept in a hypoxic tank at night to trigger the physiologic adaptations in the concentration and properties of his blood hemoglobin. His big mistake at Lincoln Center was to try to and perform the stunt while releasing himself from handcuffs, thus burning too much oxygen from his movements. After his failure, he went back to the drawing board, started another training regiment, and ended up holding his breath for 17 minutes and 4.4 seconds live on Oprah (a different world record this time, one where you breathe pure oxygen before you start holding your breath). His description of those 17 minutes was riveting. We apologize for the poor quality of this clip, but listen in on David’s description of his heart rate during the last few minutes of his record:
TEDMED then wrapped up with some more beat poetry by Sekou Andrews, and a lovely musical performance from Jill Sobule. Well, that’s it. Thank you for following Medgadget’s coverage. Also keep in mind that all of the videos from the conference will be posted online at TEDMED and TED. We will let you know when that happens so you can relive the conference yourself.
We’d also like to say a big thanks to the organizers of TEDMED, Marc Hodosh and Richard Saul Wurman, both for their extraordinary efforts in putting together a great event, and for working with Medgadget to help get us there.