TED Radio Hour
6:10 am
Fri May 23, 2014

Is It Possible To Be Fearless?

Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode What We Fear.

About David Blaine's TEDTalk

Illusionist and endurance artist David Blaine explains how he has made a career out of fearlessly performing death-defying feats.

About David Blaine

David Blaine has become a household name because of his TV specials where he performs death-defying acts. He's been called a "modern-day Houdini" for being buried alive for seven days, frozen in a block of ice for nearly three days, and for standing atop a 100-foot pillar in Manhattan for 35 hours.

During an appearance on Oprah, Blaine broke the Guinness World Record for holding his breath underwater, for 17 minutes and 4.5 seconds.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. Our show today - all about our fears. And some people just don't have them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: David has been standing on that pillar for well over 34 hours - no net, no safety wires.

RAZ: So magician David Blaine does these amazing, death-defyingly, scary stunts. Like when he stood atop a 100-foot pillar in Bryant Park for a day and a half. He's also been encased in a massive block of ice in Times Square for 63 hours.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: He soaking wet. We remind you, for three days, he's had no food, just water.

RAZ: He's lived in a plexiglass box suspended over the Thames River in London for 44 days.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #3: For 40 days, he had no food. But his body did, his own.

RAZ: And all these stunts were very public and very scary.

What's been, like, the scariest thing - where you've sort of, for a moment, thought, God, I don't know if I should do this?

DAVID BLAINE: A moment where - let me think. There's got to be one. Hold on.

RAZ: Are you afraid of failing, of do...

BLAINE: No. No way. No. No way. I look at failing as the number one most important part of anything that I do.

RAZ: So is there anything that you're afraid of right now?

BLAINE: No. No. You know, I could say one thing now that I think about it, though. Like, if I have to go sleep in, like, a big house somewhere and no one else is there, I can't do it. I'd rather just sleep on the street.

RAZ: And that fearlessness, it started when David Blaine was a kid. He tells the story in his TED talk.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

BLAINE: As a young magician, I was obsessed with Houdini and his underwater challenges. So I began early on competing against the other kids, seeing how long I could stay underwater while they went up and down to breathe, you know, five times while I stayed under on one breath. By the time I was a teenager, I was able to hold my breath for 3 minutes and 30 seconds. I would later find out that was Houdini's personal record.

In 1987, I heard of a story about a boy that fell through ice and was trapped under a river. He was underneath, not breathing for 45 minutes. When the rescue workers came, they resuscitated him, and there was no brain damage. His core temperature had dropped to 77 degrees. As a magician, I think everything is possible. And I think if something is done by one person, it can be done by others. I started to think if the boy could survive without breathing for that long, there must be a way that I could do it.

RAZ: When you were a kid, right...

BLAINE: Yeah.

RAZ: ...Did you ever feel like you felt differently about fear than other kids did?

BLAINE: You know, that's a really good question. And I have two components - number one, I was raised by a single mother in Brooklyn, which was a pretty rough neighborhood at the time. So even though I was only 5 and 6, I was a fearless kid. I was a man at a young age. I was more of a man back then than I am now actually. But number two is I was born with my feet turned in. I had certain things against me.

I had asthma as a kid, and things like that. So I wanted to make myself physically better and stronger so I would run barefoot in the snow and hold my breath longer than all the other kids. So I think I started - like, most kids are learning how to bounce a basketball or hit a baseball, I didn't have that behind me. I didn't have somebody teaching me those things. So I was kind of making up my own things.

RAZ: And years later, David decided to get really serious about holding his breath. So he began to study those divers who don't use oxygen thanks. And he figured out how to slow down his heart rate. And in three months, he lost more than 50 pounds.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

BLAINE: Thinner I was, the longer I was able to hold my breath. And by eating so well and training so hard, my resting heart rate dropped to 38 beats per minute, which is lower than most Olympic athletes. In four months of training, I was able to hold my breath for over seven minutes. I decided that I was going to break the world record live on primetime television. So naturally, I decided to call Oprah.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE OPRAH WINFREY SHOW")

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #4: After months of training...

OPRAH WINFREY: David Blaine is about to risk his life on our stage.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #4: Live in Chicago...

RAZ: OK, so cut to 2006. David's on a soundstage in Chicago under water inside a giant glass sphere. And he's going for the world record.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE OPRAH WINFREY SHOW")

WINFREY: The current record is 16 minutes and 32 seconds.

RAZ: But at around 10 minutes underwater, his mind started to drift to a very specific place.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE OPRAH WINFREY SHOW")

WINFREY: Well, these next minutes are the most difficult and the most dangerous.

RAZ: He tuned out the audience, and he thought of water, water off the coast of Australia where he spent many of his months training.

BLAINE: I just imagine that I'm drifting in the ocean, I'm getting sucked into the abyss of the ocean. And I feel the sun shooting through the water, and we are with the sea creatures. And you don't need air, and there's no bubbles so they swim next to.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE OPRAH WINFREY SHOW")

WINFREY: We've only - well, we're at 14:30 right now. Fourteen minutes and 30 seconds.

BLAINE: And I look to my right, and I'm 200 feet deep, and there's a giant sea turtle swimming with me. Then I look to my left, and there's a spotted ray on my left. And it's, you know - they're swimming. They're the guides.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE OPRAH WINFREY SHOW")

WINFREY: One minute away from breaking the record.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Now look at his heart rate. It's starting to slow significantly.

BLAINE: So, you know, it's like an incredible feeling.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE OPRAH WINFREY SHOW")

WINFREY: Come on. Come on. Come on. Come on.

MAN: Now, look at - his heart rate is now in the 50s with extra heartbeats.

WINFREY: Come on, you can do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

BLAINE: And then suddenly I hear screaming.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE OPRAH WINFREY SHOW")

MAN: He made it, made it - 16:46. He's beaten the record.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

BLAINE: And I think that it's some weird thing that I had died or something had happened.

(LAUGHTER)

BLAINE: And then I realized that I had made it to 16:32. So with the energy of everybody that was there, I decided to keep pushing, and I went to 17 minutes and four seconds.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE OPRAH WINFREY SHOW")

MAN: 17 minutes.

(APPLAUSE)

WINFREY: 17 minutes, 4.4 seconds.

(APPLAUSE)

WINFREY: Broke the world record.

RAZ: David's record from 2008, by the way, has been beaten, most recently by someone in Germany in 2012 who was under water for 22 minutes. David still holds his breath for 10 minutes every single night in his act, as well as stick an ice pick through his hand, shoot glass, swallow kerosene. He really does these things each night, unafraid of death or injury. And the reason he says - his mom.

BLAINE: When she was dying, she didn't have a shred of fear, or if she did, she didn't show me. She was very strong, very courageous, never complained, always paid attention to others. Even the day before she died, a little boy walked past her bedroom, and she was really out of it from all the morphine. And she said to the mother - 'cause he didn't even walk into the room, he just walked past - and she went, oh, he got his hair cut. It looks so cute.

So it was like she really paid very little attention to herself, and was all over everybody else. But she made it appear to be beautiful. So I think she did that to protect me, but she - you know, she never made it into something that was scary.

RAZ: How many kids do you have?

BLAINE: One, she's 3. She's, by the way, beyond fearless. Like, she pets the alligator, and, you know, she loves sharks. She's fearless.

RAZ: Do you experience the - do you ever experience, like, the fear that a parent sometimes fears? Just like the fear of...

BLAINE: Big time. Enormous.

RAZ: Right. Right.

BLAINE: Even when she just, like, trips or something, I have a heart attack.

RAZ: So, see, I got you. You have fears. You have fears. You have a 3-year-old, and you're constantly - as a parent, you're constantly thinking, oh, my God. Is a car going to hit her? Is she OK? Is everything at daycare good? Is everything fine? Is the nanny doing - like, you have...

BLAINE: Well, those things I don't fear 'cause what I do is I make every moment that I'm with her. I think it's more important to have, you know, great, valuable, undistracted time. And then hope that it can go on forever. But because like I said, I didn't have my mother for as long as I would have liked to. But she was so strong in the moments that we were together that she's just as vibrant today in my life as she was when I was a kid.

RAZ: That's magician David Blaine. His incredible talk can be found at ted.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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