Holding his breath underwater for 17 minutes didn’t scare David Blaine—but stepping on the TEDMED stage did

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David Blaine's latest stunt is called "Electrified." Photo: Courtesy of David Blaine

David Blaine’s latest stunt is called “Electrified.” Photo: Courtesy of David Blaine

David Blaine is the master of the endurance stunt.  In 1999, he was buried alive in a clear box underneath three tons of water. Over the course of seven days, about 75,000 people stopped by to watch him in his self-made tomb. David Blaine: How I held my breath for 17 minutes David Blaine: How I held my breath for 17 minutes In 2008, Blaine attempted to set the Guinness World Record for holding his breath underwater in front of a packed crowd — and had to be pulled out of the tank when he started convulsing. He attempted the trick again, this time successfully, as Oprah‘s cameras rolled — holding his breath for an incredible 17 minutes and 4.5 seconds. Just last year, Blaine performed a new 72-hour stunt in which one million volts of electricity were sent through his body, the whole thing livestreamed over YouTube.

Blaine found these challenges — and their very public nature — both manageable and exciting. But there was one challenge that truly terrified him: being asked to give an 18-minute talk at TEDMED about the magic of illusion and how, sometimes, the best way to perform a trick is to do it for real.

Today’s TED Weekends on the Huffington Post looks at this surprising dichotomy, with vivid essays from Blaine as well as others. Below, a taste of these pieces.

David Blaine: How one of America’s greatest illusionists makes the impossible possible

I never feared heights, sharks, being shot, drowning, starvation, or even death. A couple of years ago, I was faced with the one thing that actually did intimidate me — speaking at the TED Conference in front of some of the greatest minds in the world, people whom I have always admired.

For years I would attend the conference, do magic to all of the speakers, and then get blown away by their talks. When I watched these amazing people on stage presenting world-changing ideas, I almost found it funny that they would even consider asking me to speak.

Learning to hold my breath for 17 minutes was an exciting challenge, but here, there was no block of ice, or coffin lid, or even a deck of cards separating me from the crowd. Read the full essay »

Lisa Shufro: How David Blaine prepared his TEDMED Talk: One card at a time 

As fate would have it, David Blaine was sitting next to me on the plane.

Blaine was giving a talk at TEDMED, the same conference I was heading for. He was tall, with big hulking shoulders. But his hands were slender — almost feminine. He was holding a deck of playing cards, pacing through them slowly. Two of hearts, three of hearts, four… each one was marked with notes for his talk.

I had only known Blaine as “some famous guy” who was always trying to get himself killed on national TV. After burying himself, freezing himself, or submerging himself in water for a week, I expected him to be powerful, dark, and grim. But actually, he seemed pretty normal. And nervous.

TEDMED was David Blaine’s first public talk. He swore it was the scariest thing he’d ever tried. Read the full essay »

Roger Covin: Treating fear in the 21st Century: Lessons from David Blaine

What would you expect to see upon entering a psychologist’s office? Perhaps you imagine a couch supporting a distressed-looking client and a serious-looking therapist nodding and analyzing every word?

Well, if you were to peek into my office during a therapy session, you just might discover something a bit unusual — my client and I breathing through narrow straws.

This is therapy in the modern era.

One of the great aspects of David Blaine’s recent TED Talk  was his concrete discussion and recall of how he trains his body and mind for various shows. In particular, the overview of various strategies he uses to train for the breath-holding spectacle offers us the opportunity to learn about how we can stretch and manipulate the thresholds of our body and mind. In fact, such lessons can be instructive in terms of demonstrating an important part of therapy for fear. Read the full essay »