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Did David Blaine hold his breath for 17 minutes?

by Brian Dunning, Jan 28 2010

Like any good audience member, I’ve always been impressed by magician David Blaine’s 2008 world record feat of holding his breath underwater for 17 minutes. I’d never given it much more thought than the observation that a young, healthy guy can probably achieve any given world record if he dedicates enough resources to the effort, and Blaine certainly appeared to have done so.

I received a forwarded email from the University of Pittsburgh’s Critical Care Medicine Group email list:

Absolutely enthralling video of David Blaine explaining how he held his breath for 17 minutes! Interesting the assistance he received from the medical fraternity, including trying liquid ventilation with perflurocarbons.

Video here <http://www.ted.com/talks/david_blaine_how_i_held_my_breath_for_17_min.html>

OK, well enough. This is pretty much what has been publicly broadcast about the stunt. Nothing new here. But then another poster replied:

I love magic and I very much respect David Blane`s skill as an illusionist and the training he does for his stunts. The talk is, indeed, enthralling. Blane is a superb magician and , even though the people at TED took his talk at face value (including some aspects of his medical assistance), I do not. A number of David Blane`s and Chris Angel`s stunt-illusions (including the prolonged breath holding under water) have been recreated by the nefarious “masked magician” with a reveal of the underlying principles of the illusion. To me, the “face emersion in a sink full of perflurocarbons” and some of the other medical discussion add to the illusion but don’t give a cogent alternative explanation to the true aspects of the illusion. An important part of the fun/magic of an illusion is the magician convincing you that there is no other explanation to what you believe you are seeing. You can find the “reveal” of the illusion on the net if you are so inclined.

Well, neither do I take the perfluorocarbons explanation at face value. Another poster replied with this:

My father participated in some of the original experiments with the SEALS using perflurocarbons.  After watching James Cameron’s “The Abyss”, which attempted to show the liquid breathing effects on rats and people, he remarked it was reasonably accurate.  The ‘panic’ reaction of holding one’s breath for as long as possible until being forced to breath in the fluid was an issue, and once the subject was breathing the liquid, they were unable to perform tasks because it took so much effort to breathe.

There is good reason to be skeptical of David Blaine’s feats. His famous TV show “Street Magic” is widely known to have been largely accomplished with post-production editing. For example, his “levitation” was a cleverly edited conflation of a parlor trick called the Balducci and a demonstration of using a wire rig for flying onstage (and I don’t think I’m violating any magician’s trade secrets by pointing that out). Should we not be equally skeptical of his breath holding trick? It was performed on Oprah, for FSM’s sake; and it’s not like no magician has ever taken advantage of the limited view television offers its audience.

Pretty much all of the authorities accept Blaine’s record as legitimate, though short-lived (it was broken only a few months later). Blaine’s problem is that he has established himself as the boy who cried wolf. Whether his feat was genuine or a trick along the lines of the Masked Magician’s reveal, his audience has good reason to doubt its authenticity.

What do you think?

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45 Responses to “Did David Blaine hold his breath for 17 minutes?”

  1. johnc says:

    If it was a trick, his acting in the TED talk deserves it’s own merit.

    Why do something so unremarkable if it’s a scam? Better to make something disappear or chop a woman in half.

    Though I’ve never been a massive fan, I do think he has a strong sense of integrity as a performer, so yeah, I’m convinced.

  2. P says:

    I must say that i am not so skeptical either!

    Does anybody know how Guiness asure that people are not cheating cause i assume they were there and watched?

    But hey if he fooled me with the Ted Talk then +1 on the guy above me!

  3. Blaine, in my experience, has a history of exploiting naive scientists (naive to magic). I guess he thinks it’s all part of the illusion – but he does not seem to mind deceiving scientists about science, if it enhances the illusion of his ability. (This is based upon my personal knowledge of his interaction with some colleagues at Yale.)

    • Max says:

      If he’d admit that he fooled the scientists, it would be comparable to James Randi’s Project Alpha.
      Otherwise, it’s comparable to Uri Geller’s scams.

  4. Tyro says:

    On the one hand you have free divers who, after years of training are able to hold their breath for 7-8 minutes and the record holders who can hold their breath for 11 minutes. On the other hand you have a guy whose only training is in deceit and misdirection giving a highly dubious account and professional colleagues giving a very plausible counter explanation using (*gasp*) deceit and misdirection.

    I think it pretty much answers itself: Blaine is a genius and we should believe everything he says, no matter how improbable.

    • Jeremy says:

      If you take the time to read the blog post and watch the video, you’d know that the record Blain set was for oxygen assisted static apnea – ie. breathing pure oxygen and then holding your breath without moving underwater. This is far easier than free diving and unassisted static apnea. The record he had to beat was 16 minutes 32, and he beat it by 32 seconds. A few months later it was beaten by somebody else.

      Regardless of whether David Blain in particular was cheating or not, his effort is clearly medically possible and has been repeated by other people.

  5. Per says:

    Why is it so incredible that he could hold his breath for 17 mins when it was besten by another person shirtly after..? He likes to do other stuff than magic as well, and practiced and documented it. This is not such an extraordinary claim that we have to demand first-hand experience, 3 independent controllants, double-blinding, etc, etc. Other people than Blain upped the record after his announcement to over 16 mins. Give it a rest, he’s human and so are they. He just also happens to be a magician besides his strange activities on the side. Greetings from Sweden.

  6. Blaine’s TV shows are not only full of camera tricks, as you described, but also full of tricks that anyone with a credit card can pick up at a magic store and learn in less time than it takes to watch him do the trick.

    Simple statistics would suggest that the odds of Blaine being a world champion at ANYTHING are astronomically small, let alone being the best on the planet in the multiple physical feats he’s demonstrated on his specials.

  7. Scott C. says:

    I watched the TED talk with a great deal of skepticism, assuming that Blaine, who’s stock in trade is deception, was putting the audience on. I think he was having a ball wrapping his tricks up in pseudoscientific babble before an “enlightened” audience. What’s turned me off about him again and again is how far he goes in the direction of promoting himself as some sort of mystic. Certainly, he is under no obligation to give us a wink now and again, but there’s nothing fun about his approach to magic in my opinion.

    • goats says:

      A big red herring was at the end when he sobs and this immediately gets the heart resonate to make most people forget any doubts they had .

  8. Rev Matt says:

    He’s a magician/illusionist/whatever. It’s a trick. That’s what they do. I admire the trick as a trick, and an effective one, but not as a feat of superhuman breathing technique. I like magicians who make it clear they are tricking you rather than pretending it’s REALLY MAGIC. On one of my favorite podcasts (aside from SGU, of course), The NOW Show, he is routinely referred to not by name but as “The Git Wizard’.

  9. Kirk says:

    If you want to hear a good funny podcast about Magic and David Blaine,
    find Penn Gillettes Radio show with Cris Angel as his guest.

    Funny and informative….sorry I don’t have a link, might be on Pennfans.com or something, too busy at work to search.

    • JBrock says:

      I’m almost completely sure that episode was on 02/07/2006, and that it is indeed available on pennfans.net . Unfortunately my (heh) organization’s surf control software is blocking that site from here, but it’s probably a good place to look.

  10. Lone Wolf says:

    It probably was a trick. He is a magician, thats what they do and the people know its a trick and they don’t care.
    I don’t understand why some magicians feel they need to claim there tricks are real. We know they’re tricks and part of the fun is trying to figure out how the tricks are done.

  11. Dan Gilbert says:

    I’m with Scott (#7) regarding Blaine’s magic. He’s first and foremost a magician, then a stuntman, then an exhibitionist. I’m not saying any of these things are bad at all… just that I find it pretty amazing that skeptics would take his claims at face value. His stock in trade is deception and showmanship.

  12. Ebenezer Clipperlock says:

    Well, his talk was bullshit, and he was bested by… a magician! Coïncidence? I think not.
    Anyway, when on stage he looked like it was clear to him that this was a piece of humorous fiction and from the audience’s reaction I think they got that too.
    So when the GBoR acknowledges you, what do you do? Maybe you should tell them ‘look, it was a magic trick, gullible fools’ but you can also consider the GBoR as part of the joke. Those in the know will certainly derive amusement from it being accepted as an official record. And if the GBoR doesn’t like to be part of jokes, then the onus is on them to be more scrupulous in defining and judging records.

  13. MadScientist says:

    He’s a magician, so I inherently distrust him. I would have insisted on monitoring him differently and on controlling his environment – he can have the environment he wants, but he must tell me what that is and I will build it to his specifications – nothing hidden that was not agreed upon. This breathing in perfluorocarbons sounds like woo-woo to me; unless you can dissolve a substantial amount of oxygen in it (and the oxygen is still available to the lungs), inhaling perfluorocarbons will have the same effect as inhaling pure helium or nitrogen – it will knock you out and asphyxiate you. Carbon dioxide also needs to be removed and, given the viscosity of a liquid v. a gas, you need sufficient exchange of the liquid to ensure an acceptable availability of oxygen.

    I agree with Lone Wolf; I dislike magicians who claim their tricks are “real”, or done “without camera tricks” (well, at least for those cases where they do employ camera tricks) – for that reason I view Copperfield as a rank amateur. With the Blackstones for example (well, at least as much as my aging memory can be relied upon), I can’t recall father and son claiming that anything was real; it was a case of just sit back and enjoy the show – enjoy the illusions of defying reality. Come to think of it, anyone recall Penn and Teller claiming that their acts are “real”?

  14. Max says:

    In his TED talk, Blaine says he asked a top neurosurgeon, “How long is it possible to go without breating, like how long could I go without air? And he said to me that anything over 6 minutes, you have a serious risk of hypoxic brain damage.”
    But it’s not clear if he was talking about an average person not getting any oxygen at all, or a trained person holding his breath.

  15. Max says:

    David Blaine did fail his first breath-holding stunt in the sphere, and had to be rescued, which is not something I’d expect from a magic trick.

    • MadScientist says:

      Don’t count on that – the “this is so dangerous I almost died the last time but will try again” really pulls in crowds. Anyone who’s followed the antics of Rob “Evel” Knievel would see how people flocked to his performances to see if he could pull it of on that day. Admittedly it’s a real downer for people who paid to be there and things went wrong (not to mention that was a very bad thing for Knievel too because in his profession it was all skill and luck – there was no illusion). Harry Houdini (and many after) raked in audiences with the “death-defying” tricks. (But to be honest many of the tricks are genuinely dangerous and if you don’t make plans to survive various possible problems, you’re as good as dead.)

  16. Egill says:

    No idea if it was a trick or not, either way his TED talk was entertaining. I’m getting a strange feeling that some people here in the comments section consider TED a venue for scientists and real stuff, but Rick Warren has given a talk there, so that’s at least evidence they have people talk about mumbo jumbo hooey as well :)

  17. Dionigi says:

    I agree David Blaine is a stunt magician and most of his other stunts have been revealed on the internet. I also do not like people who claim to be able to do things that they accomplish with deception, Uri being the worst

  18. Jeremy Anderson says:

    This strikes me as being like the Moon Landing Conpiracy. Just highlighting doubt gets some people jumping up and down yelling “I thought it was a hoax!” when, of course, it DID happen. Does anyone have any evidence that Blaine did fake this? Or this just people reacting in a prejudiced (i.e. not skeptical) way to someone they already don’t like, which must mean he cheated?

    Or is Brian Dunning pulling an anti-vaxer stunt, and “just raising the question?”

    P.S. Sorry, I don’t like first posts looking like trolls, but I wanted to post.

    • Max says:

      Skeptics live in a nice area between gullibility and denial.
      If someone says that Guinness World Records was in on the conspiracy, or that Blaine emerged from the water tank dry, then we’re in denier territory.

    • MadScientist says:

      Why should we take the word of others that Blaine did as he claims when neither we nor anyone we have confidence in controlling and testing the claim were not there? It’s a perfectly reasonable question: did he really do it or did he fool people? Your comparison to an anti-vax stunt is entirely inappropriate; the anti-vax crowd lie to promote their agenda while in this instance there is not sufficient control and observation of Blaine’s stunt to be able to discard cheating. I’ve seen video recordings of Harry Blackstone (senior) cutting a woman in half with a giant circular saw – and the recordings were from various angles. Should we all believe that Blackstone genuinely cut his assistant in half?

      • Jeremy says:

        But he only beat the record by 3% and had his record beaten a few months later. Did the previous and current record holders also cheat? Of course Blain’s efforts were also written up and published in peer reviewed medical journals. Are the peer reviewers and scientists who studied his physiology during and after the event also in on the trick, or did he also dupe them?

        It certainly is well documented that breathing in pure oxygen for a significant period of time greatly enhances people’s ability to hold their breath – hence the two separate breath holding records – oxygen assisted and unassisted.

        Everything he did is either within the realms of possibility or there is a massive conspiracy that is far bigger than David Blain.

  19. Cathy Sander says:

    Then considering that we are vulnerable to scammers and deceptive claims…should I continue to trust my own sensory and rational abilities, however flawed they are? Because, these news makes me feel very pessimistic about the things I can confidently trust/accept.

    [P.S: Fortunately, I am not completely self-aware!]

  20. Venom says:

    I don’t see in all this a real argument proving that it was fake. It’s just red herring: he’s a magician, so it could be faked. Well of course it could be, but that doesn’t prove that it was. The fact that others (who are not magician) have done it, and that his record is already beaten, shows that it’s feasable. After that… For the moment I don’t see any real reason to not give him the benefit of the doubt.

    • MadScientist says:

      I don’t see anyone claiming that it is fake, only that they have their doubts that it is real. While some people are more prone to believe without appropriate controls, many skeptics are more inclined not to believe until they have satisfactory controls and evidence. As Randi and his accomplices demonstrated long ago in “Project Alpha”, there is also the danger that people believe they have appropriate controls when they do not.

  21. Jeremy says:

    I see no reason to think that it’s fake. Other people have held their breath for about as long, and for even longer. His efforts were documented by medical scientists and published in peer reviewed medical journals. The amount of effort needed to fake a stunt like this would be far greater than actually doing it.

  22. John Orr says:

    He’s an illusionist! Get it? He’s a professional illusionist. Of course it’s an illusion, why else would he do it?

  23. Edward says:

    In my background as a medical student and freediver, I am not surprised that David Blaine was able to beat the oxygen assisted record and failed on the unasisted previous record.

    The 11 minute Static Apnea record (unassisted with oxygen) has been battled for years by trained freedivers. Only a few, highly trained, athlete’s have been able to improve it in a slow pace.

    His preparations for this record, including his stay in the fishbowl where deleterious for his attempt. His explanation of his training for the oxygen assisted record showed similar problems, and I am sure he could have done even better if he didn’t trained with common freediving misconceptions.

    The heavy competition for unassistend static apnea is a big contrast with the oxygen assisted record attempt. There are only a few freedivers persuing this record. Anyone in good health, with a bit of talent and a good team of trainers en physicans should be able to attain similar, or even better results. It won’t be good for your health, but that won’t be different compared with the risk olymic athete’s have.

    Therefore, any trickery for this stunt should not be required. The only trick he is playing is he makes people wonder how he made the illusion while there isn’t one.

  24. George Radford says:

    What is David Blaine’s REAL name? Anuhar Gupta? Something like that?
    It’s rather like Nick Griffin calling himself ‘Mee Yip’ and moving to China.
    Just another invader into previously white America, ruining it and turning it into a third world hellhole.

  25. Amy Roman says:

    Gee, if you watch his street magic show, he’s says, “this is just fun, I’m an entertainer.” If you read his book, he explains that his cards tricks etc., are all carefully planned set ups, and he explains how he learned it from books. And his endurance stunts, well, I saw the guy standing on top of a pole for one of the 30-odd hours. Hey, I was there—where the evidence that it was fake? All this “skeptism” is just cynicism. I’ve read his book. I’ve seen his shows. Please, please show me evidence that that he says, “I truly can read minds.” Or “I really can levitate.” His book is fascinating because he explains how psychics can cold read by saying very general things, seeing reactions, and taking it from there.

    Blaine is into all the organic food crap, but to criticize his breath holding, lol, come up with EVIDENCE not garbage, “well, he’s tricks people, so we can’t believe anything. Great critical thinking.

    During his buried Alive, the Amazing Randi was there, couldn’t explain it, said it might be a hologram, but if he’s really doing it, “you gotta give the kid credit.” Please folks, give me the evidence. And if you can’t explain how he’s doing it, well, doesn’t that make him a good entertainer? Where are all the negative comments about Houdini? Everything he did was a trick.

    And For Brian to just say, “Well its widely known that his Street Magic shows. . . .” sounds like he is just accepting that on face value, no critical thinking regarding that claim.

  26. JOHNNY5 says:

    Anybody who thinks that this was a trick is half way to being retarded. The Guiness Book of World Records is not a book full of fake records and is a highly respected and undisputed book of records, so to think that they were in on a magic trick is just idiotic. The record he set was for OXYGEN ASSISTED breath holding for which he trained and worked hard to accomplish. Please people, give credit when credit is due, if he wanted to do a magic trick, why not do something a little more dazzling than just sitting in a bowl of water.

  27. Olsson says:

    17 minutes is impossible even with oxygen. I used to play underwater sports such as underwater rugby 3 times per week for 10 years, and I’m in no way saying that I’m exceptional, but I was able to hold my breath for 5 and a half minutes at my best.

    The best people in the world in terms of holding their breath is obviously those who are doing extreme underwater sports. I believe the world record in holding ones breath with normal air is around 10 minutes. Are you saying that Blaine doubled that record, though with pure oxygen? Not very likely. It would be like running 100 meters in 4 seconds instead of 10. It’s not going to happen.

  28. ray says:

    “Why not do something a little more dazzling than just sitting in a bowl of water?” Because people are tired of those things. So he did something which people want see and which some stupid people want to believe.

  29. Jason says:

    Why do you use many words to say so little? Blaine tried to beat the world record for normal air breathing… He couldn’t. So, he decided to try and beat the pure oxygen breath hold record (a much smaller pool of people trying for that) and he beat it!… until more people starting trying for that one after his stunt gained so much publicity. End of story, that’s it.

  30. tina says:

    To those who say it’s no big deal if Blaine is hoaxing to achieve his world record. Think for a moment about the real competitors who have dedicated their lives to the breath-holding “sport”.
    For those of you who have had the dispeasure of working with bullshitters as co workers, you know what I mean. I prefer integrity in documentation of all kind. This is what civilization is based on.

  31. Uberfairy says:

    Upon watching Blaine’s performance on the Oprah show, I immediately recognized how the trick could have been accomplished. I wrote the show, because I believed that Oprah had been duped and people misled. Decades earlier I had witnessed a mouse performing the same feat in biological lab tests. The mouse did not meditate or train.
    Tip-offs that the stunt was a “stunt”:
    Blaine’s heart rate was high throughout the entire stunt. Why? More effort is required to breath oxygenated per-fluorocarbon fluid than air, because it is denser. Holding his breath could not explain his continuous high heart rate.
    Blaine emphasized the stunt was expensive. Per-fluorocarbon is expensive, water is not. Bringing a cube shaped tank would have made more sense, if Blaine was using water. Blaine brought a specially constructed sphere, not a cube shaped tank. Why? A smaller volume of fluid is required to fill a sphere. The cost of building a sphere shaped tank offsets the cost of per-fluorocarbon.
    In a promo ad, Oprah emphasized that Blaine was even bringing his own water. What? Blaine brought his own “water.” Why? I had to wonder… why not fill the tank with water at the premises and add whatever salts he needed there? That’s what any rational person would do.
    Blaine wore a wet suit, because the “water” was cold. That makes no sense, if he is trying to hold his breath under water. The body expends energy to maintain body temperature, which burns oxygen, so the water should be warmed, not cold, to extend breath holding time. Blaine emphasized the expense of the stunt. If so, why not spend a few extra bucks to heat the water? Perhaps because oxygenated per-fluorocarbons require cold to main the oxygenation. Not warming the water makes sense, if it wasn’t water.
    Blaine and the doctor emphasized the danger. Again, true and consistent with per-fluorocarbon. In early lab tests, one of the major side effects was death of the mice, after they had been extracted alive from long submersion. However, per-fluorocarbon has been investigated as a possible effective agent for use in some surgery, although dangers still exist.
    I don’t believe the Oprah performance was a legitimate breath holding act, because it doesn’t make biological sense.

  32. PeteR.. says:

    I find it amusing that a record keeping organization created by a beer company is considered infallible.

  33. Brian says:

    I just saw the TED Talk on Netflix. The suit, as mentioned above, makes no sense to me. We’ve all seen astronauts with just a Speedo on with EKG tabs etc. on their chest. What use was the suit except to provide something that a true breath-holding expert wouldn’t need? Blaine looked pretty good when he came out, both times, as opposed to how he describes himself in the talk; heart changing beats, no feeling in his extremities etc. I am strong skeptic of this stunt, Ted or no Ted. If he punked Ted, he should be ashamed of himself.

  34. krismyth says:

    He talks like an uneducated person who can barely spit out his thoughts. I thought he was stoned when I first heard him speaking before I knew who he was. Maybe he was, dunno. He slobbers over his sip of water in the Ted Talks bit. Sounds like a 5 year old, check it out, don’t take my word for it. Give me a break. We want to believe and that’s fine but look around…this will entail your eyes being open.

    Nonetheless, it doesn’t take much for most folks. Just tell them God isn’t real and you’ve started a movement. Not many questions asked. Be who you are, not who you think you are supposed to be.