What is the longest a person can hold their breath for, and survive without obvious brain damage? No Googling… five, ten, maybe even 15 minutes? Take a deep breath… how about 22 minutes!?
That is the Guinness World Record held since 2012 by Stig Severinsen: “The man who doesn’t breathe”. Given what we know about the enormous risks of permanent damage if the brain is starved of oxygen for even short periods, how on earth can that be possible?
Try holding your breath now. How long can you last? The average person can hold their breath for about one minute. Although we naturally breathe about 12 times per minute, we can voluntarily hold our breaths. But not to the point of going unconscious.
Mammals have a very handy diving reflex
If you try holding your breath underwater, chances are you’ll find you can last longer. This is because of the ‘diving reflex’ — a physiological response to being submerged in cold water. As a result, our heart rates decrease by around 10% (in marine mammals like the sperm whale, the heart rate reduction can be up to 90% and many species can hold their breath for over an hour).
Blood vessels in the skin and limbs also constrict so that blood is directed away from the surface of the body and towards the brain and heart. Essentially the body shuts down any bits that aren’t necessary for survival in order to save energy for the parts that are!
But we still gasp for air after a minute or so
When we try to hold our breath, two things happen: we experience a shortage of oxygen and a build-up of carbon dioxide. But long before too little oxygen or too much carbon dioxide can hurt the brain, we gasp for air. Researchers call this moment of urgency the break point.
What triggers the break point? Recent research suggests perhaps nerve signals from the diaphragm may be in charge of telling our brain that taking a breath is overdue.
22 minutes, really?
So how on earth could Stig Severinsen hold his breath for 22 minutes? Well, it turns out there are different categories of breath holding.
In his famous Chinese Water Torture Cell act which he first performed in 1912, Harry Houdini held his breath for more than three minutes.
For thousands of years pearl divers have retrieved pearls from the ocean floor with little to no technology to help them. There are reports of Japanese pearl divers lasting underwater for seven minutes on one breath.
Into the Big Blue
Do you remember the film The Big Blue about champion 20th century free divers Jacques Mayol and Enzo Maiorca? Free divers go as deep as they can on a single breath and often rely on the help of an air balloon to resurface (and sometimes a weighted sled to get down). One of the current records is 145 metres.
There is also a competitive discipline in free diving called “static apnea” – this is where a person holds his or her breath underwater, without moving, for as long as possible. The title is currently held by Frenchman Stéphane Mifsud after spending an extraordinary 11 minutes, 35 seconds below water on a single breath of air.
But to go beyond 11 minutes you need to do more than just take a really deep breath. Back in 1959 a physiologist called Hermann Rahn managed to hold his breath for nearly 14 minutes by slowing his metabolism (to reduce the body’s oxygen requirements), hyperventilating (to lower the levels of carbon dioxide in the blood) and filling his lungs with pure oxygen (via a gas cylinder).
Pure oxygen helps a lot
It is this act of inhaling pure oxygen (the air we breath is only 21% oxygen) that makes all the difference. Stig Severinson’s world record for “breath holding underwater” allows for the use of pure oxygen in preparation whereas “static apnea” does not.
In 2008, illusionist and endurance artist David Blaine managed to hold his breath for 17 minutes by using a combination of these techniques while remaining completely still.
The first thing that I learned is when you’re holding your breath you should never move at all; that wastes energy. So I learned never to move. And I learned how to slow my heart rate down. I had to remain perfectly still and just relax and think that I wasn’t in my body. David Blaine
Don’t try this at home
Seriously, don’t! All of these practices are risky and extended breath-holding can result in brain damage and death. Nicholas Mevoli died in 2013 while attempting a new world record in free diving. And doctors have found abnormalities in free divers’ brains that suggest some form of brain damage is being caused by holding the breath for such long periods.
As for Stig Severinsen, he attributes his extraordinary ability to getting into the zone: “You have to get into a truly meditative state where you leave all your troubles behind”. It can’t hurt that he also has a lung capacity more than double the average man’s!