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.

Charles Dickens Museum Highlights the Author's Contributions to Science and Medicine

Charles Dickens is celebrated for his verbose prose and memorable opening lines, but lesser known are his contributions to science—particularly the field of medicine.

A new exhibition at London’s Charles Dickens Museum—titled "Charles Dickens: Man of Science"—is showcasing the English author’s scientific side. In several instances, the writer's detailed descriptions of medical conditions predated and sometimes even inspired the discovery of several diseases, The Guardian reports.

In his novel Dombey and Son, the character of Mrs. Skewton was paralyzed on her right side and unable to speak. Dickens was the first person to document this inexplicable condition, and a scientist later discovered that one side of the brain was largely responsible for speech production. "Fat boy" Joe, a character in The Pickwick Papers who snored loudly while sleeping, later lent his namesake to Pickwickian Syndrome, otherwise known as obesity hypoventilation syndrome.

A figurine of Fat Boy Joe
Courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum

Dickens also wrote eloquently about the symptoms of tuberculosis and dyslexia, and some of his passages were used to teach diagnosis to students of medicine.

“Dickens is an unbelievably acute observer of human behaviors,” museum curator Frankie Kubicki told The Guardian. “He captures these behaviors so perfectly that his descriptions can be used to build relationships between symptoms and disease.”

Dickens was also chummy with some of the leading scientists of his day, including Michael Faraday, Charles Darwin, and chemist Jane Marcet, and the exhibition showcases some of the writer's correspondence with these notable figures. Beyond medicine, Dickens also contributed to the fields of chemistry, geology, and environmental science.

Less scientifically sound was the author’s affinity for mesmerism, a form of hypnotism introduced in the 1770s as a method of controlling “animal magnetism,” a magnetic fluid which proponents of the practice believed flowed through all people. Dickens studied the methods of mesmerism and was so convinced by his powers that he later wrote, “I have the perfect conviction that I could magnetize a frying-pan.” A playbill of Animal Magnetism, an 1857 production that Dickens starred in, is also part of the exhibit.

A play script from Animal Magnetism
Courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum

Located at 48-49 Doughty Street in London, the exhibition will be on display until November 11, 2018.

[h/t The Guardian]

Feeling Down? Lifting Weights Can Lift Your Mood, Too

There’s plenty of research that suggests that exercise can be an effective treatment for depression. In some cases of depression, in fact—particularly less-severe ones—scientists have found that exercise can be as effective as antidepressants, which don’t work for everyone and can come with some annoying side effects. Previous studies have largely concentrated on aerobic exercise, like running, but new research shows that weight lifting can be a useful depression treatment, too.

The study in JAMA Psychiatry, led by sports scientists at the University of Limerick in Ireland, examined the results of 33 previous clinical trials that analyzed a total of 1877 participants. It found that resistance training—lifting weights, using resistance bands, doing push ups, and any other exercises targeted at strengthening muscles rather than increasing heart rate—significantly reduced symptoms of depression.

This held true regardless of how healthy people were overall, how much of the exercises they were assigned to do, or how much stronger they got as a result. While the effect wasn’t as strong in blinded trials—where the assessors don’t know who is in the control group and who isn’t, as is the case in higher-quality studies—it was still notable. According to first author Brett Gordon, these trials showed a medium effect, while others showed a large effect, but both were statistically significant.

The studies in the paper all looked at the effects of these training regimes on people with mild to moderate depression, and the results might not translate to people with severe depression. Unfortunately, many of the studies analyzed didn’t include information on whether or not the patients were taking antidepressants, so the researchers weren’t able to determine what role medications might play in this. However, Gordon tells Mental Floss in an email that “the available evidence supports that [resistance training] may be an effective alternative and/or adjuvant therapy for depressive symptoms that could be prescribed on its own and/or in conjunction with other depression treatments,” like therapy or medication.

There haven’t been a lot of studies yet comparing whether aerobic exercise or resistance training might be better at alleviating depressive symptoms, and future research might tackle that question. Even if one does turn out to be better than the other, though, it seems that just getting to the gym can make a big difference.


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