October 31, 2009 | 3
TED MED[www.tedmed.com] wrapped up with compelling personal stories that celebrated the power of the human mind to help the body endure or to reach physical achievements. The sold-out meeting in San Diego, held for the first time in five years, had during the past four days covered a spectrum of themes, including research on engineering life to create cures and regenerative medicine, the need to collect information about a patient’s environment, the personalization of health care, the quest to slow aging, and technologies, such as robots, to make it more practical for the elderly to extend their years at home.
Kenneth Kamler, a doctor who has climbed Mount Everest six times, saluted the mind–body connection in telling the harrowing story of a failed ascent in 1996 that later became the subject of the best-selling book by Jon Krakauer, Into Thin Air. A surprise windstorm made escape impossible for several climbers stranded near the peak, and Kamler, located at Camp III, lower down on the mountain, was the only doctor in the group. Kamler told the tale of a man, Beck Weathers, who had fallen alone in the snow during his summit attempt and stayed that way, unable to move, for more than a day. Weathers heard other climbers pass him and remark, “He’s dead.”
Somehow, however, as he thought of his family, he summoned the will to get up and climb down to the camp. Kamler showed a series of scans of what the climber’s brain might have looked like as it first quieted, as he lay unmoving in the snow, and then grew active in areas associated with the seat of will, such as the anterior cingulated gyrus. Weathers arrived at the camp tent severely frostbitten, his hands ice-burned to a startling white and his cheeks black with patches of necrosis, or tissue death, but he survived. (Climbing also may have deleterious effects on the brain.)
In another presentation, David Blaine, a magician famous for exhibitionist exploits such as fasting for 44 days in a suspended transparent box in 2003 in London, asked the audience to hold their breath at the start of his talk and keep a hand up as long as they were able to maintain it. While the arms steadily dropped as the seconds rolled along, Blaine described techniques to make it easier to wait past the four-minute mark, when a brain deprived of oxygen is typically damaged: hyperventilating to clear the body of carbon dioxide, taking a deep breath, then relaxing to reduce heart rate and remaining as still as possible to conserve energy.
Blaine reviewed his very public failure to break a world record for holding breath in a water-filled sphere of water in 2006 at Lincoln Center in New York City—and later, how he came to achieve the 17 minutes, four seconds mark underwater during an appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show. He described how his nervousness made his heart race to 150 beats per minute (normally, it was in the high 30s while he was relaxing during breath holding) and how he endured through the sensations of tingling limbs, chest pains and hearing a speaker broadcast his erratic heart rate. When he heard screams, he said, he belatedly realized he’d broken the world record.
Both talks received standing ovations. They were surrounded by highlights that fulfilled the “e” (for entertainment—"t" is for technology and "d" for design) in TED: the compelling emotional poetry of Sekou Andrews, and a wistful song about the brevity of the remaining summers of life by Jill Sobule with an accompaniment by jazz pianist Herbie Hancock.
If you’re wondering, I lasted about a minute and 20 seconds, which seemed to be among the longer times in the audience. My lungs burned for a long time afterward.