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David Blaine: How I Held My Breath for 17 Minutes

As a little light science-ish fare for Friday, here's a TED Talk in which David Blaine explains his quest to hold his breath for a really, really long time. He goes through a variety of possible "trick" techniques (none of which worked), and discusses his much-publicized failure to escape from handcuffs during his "Drowned Alive" feat. But then he gets to the interesting stuff -- a seemingly credible story of how he trained to do a sustained breath-hold after breathing pure oxygen. This is a different kind of record than the standard breath-hold, and Blaine did manage to break a Guinness World Record for "static apnea." What makes the story so credible is that other people actually had similar records, and Blaine's static apnea record has since been broken by Tom Sietas (the guy who held the record before Blaine and inspired Blaine's attempt). If only a few guys in the world are working on this record, it seems plausible that Blaine could make it happen.

But while this talk seems credible, it's interesting how we interact with what Blaine says. Can we ever trust him to tell the truth? Probably not: he's a magician, and deception is his M.O. Then again, he could choose to simply tell the truth once in a while. It's impossible for us to know for sure, and that strange balance between "Huh, he seems to be making sense here" versus "Yeah, but he's David Blaine and untrustworthy" makes for a fun twenty-minute video. Have a look, and let me know whether you believe him.

Content note: Part of this video might make you gag. Blaine discusses a "rebreather" made from a "Home Depot" plastic tube, and proceeds to show video of the insertion of this device down his throat; this video may be real or it may be a trick. In any case, you might want to look away during that video clip, as it is truly kind of grim and gross. (This section runs from roughly 4:30 through 4:55. Once he says "So that clearly wasn't gonna work," you're clear to watch again.) I was fine with it, but your mileage may vary.

Note the misdirection (several kinds) near the end.

See also: Wikipedia's account of this feat, which more or less matches up with what Blaine says...but is itself a potentially untrustworthy source. Probably credible: John Tierney's final NYT piece on the breath-holding record.

Disclaimer: DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME. You may attempt talking kinda goofy mumbly Blaine-style if you wish, but not the breath-holding stuff.

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The Brain Chemistry Behind Your Caffeine Boost
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iStock

Whether it’s consumed as coffee, candy, or toothpaste, caffeine is the world’s most popular drug. If you’ve ever wondered how a shot of espresso can make your groggy head feel alert and ready for the day, TED-Ed has the answer.

Caffeine works by hijacking receptors in the brain. The stimulant is nearly the same size and shape as adenosine, an inhibitory neurotransmitter that slows down neural activity. Adenosine builds up as the day goes on, making us feel more tired as the day progresses. When caffeine enters your system, it falls into the receptors meant to catch adenosine, thus keeping you from feeling as sleepy as you would otherwise. The blocked adenosine receptors also leave room for the mood-boosting compound dopamine to settle into its receptors. Those increased dopamine levels lead to the boost in energy and mood you feel after finishing your morning coffee.

For a closer look at how this process works, check out the video below.

[h/t TED-Ed]

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Sophie Nightingale / University of Warwick
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Can You Spot Which Photo Is Fake? Most People Can’t
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Sophie Nightingale / University of Warwick

In a digital world, it’s easier than ever to fool people. Sophisticated Photoshop jobs, social media, and viral news cycles mislead readers into mistaking shots from a Lebanese music video for real scenes of destruction from Aleppo, thinking that Vladimir Putin was the center of attention at the G-20 summit, or believing that Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe posed together for a photo shoot in the park.

While it would be nice to tell ourselves that we would never be duped by such fake images, the truth is, most people can’t distinguish between a manipulated photo and a real one. That’s the takeaway from a new study in Cognitive Research: Principle and Implications. As the team at Science reports, the participants were only able to pinpoint fake images two-thirds of the time.

First, psychologists from the University of Warwick asked more than 700 volunteers to look at real and fake images and identify the changes. The researchers used 10 color photographs sourced from Google searches, manipulating them through airbrushing, adding elements in, subtracting elements, and distorting shadows, and shearing trees. They applied each of these five manipulation techniques separately to a portion of the photos, eventually creating 30 manipulated photos and 10 real ones. All the participants saw one of each of the manipulation types in different photos.

An older man stands in the street in front of a house.
Can you spot the differences between the manipulated image at the top of the page and the original version above?
Sophie Nightingale / University of Warwick

The participants performed slightly above chance rates, identifying photos correctly as real only 58 percent of the time and spotting manipulations 66 percent of the time. Even when they did identify a manipulated photo, though, they didn’t necessarily know where it had been altered.

In a second study, the researchers did the same thing, but using photos study co-author Sophie J. Nightingale took with her Nikon camera, controlling for the fact that images found online could be manipulated before the researchers even downloaded them. They then had almost 660 people take an online survey testing their ability to spot fakes. They had to look at photos and label whether it was fake and if they could see where it was manipulated, whether it was fake but they didn’t know where it had been altered, or whether it was an original. At the end of the study, the subjects identified just 62 percent of the fake images correctly.

Woman standing outside
The first image is the original. The second was manipulated to add in a water spout, airbrush the woman's face, and make other slight changes.
Sophie Nightingale / University of Warwick

The results were the same regarding images that had been manipulated in both overtly unrealistic ways and photos that featured more plausible changes. One reason might be the way that our visual system simplifies information. As long as object geometries and shadows are roughly correct, our eyes accept them as accurate.

“It remains to be determined whether it is possible to train people to make use of physically implausible inconsistencies,” the researchers write. “Perhaps one possibility would entail ‘teaching' the visual system to make full use of physical properties of the world as opposed to automatically simplifying them.”

You can still take a 10-minute online survey for the project here and test your own manipulation awareness skills. (I had to take wild guesses on most of them.)

If this makes you weep for the future of the world, at least know that it’s a timeless problem. Manipulated, misleading images have been around since the earliest days of photography.

[h/t Science]

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