Some people, at least, regularly test their physical and mental limits. They may have a job, like soldiering, where the training involves dealing with bodily stresses that would overwhelm normal humans, or serving as a test pilot, where the ability to think clearly and analytically in moments of enormous emotional and psychological pressure is essential. Such people work at pushing the envelope of what they can tolerate because it is a key aspect of surviving and succeeding in their jobs.
Then there are people who test their limits voluntarily, because they find it intriguing and personally challenging. Athletes, whether professional or not, often set goals and work like crazy until they exceed them, whether it is trying to surpass a weight limit on the dead life or running a faster marathon. They endure lots of physical pain and fatigue and make great sacrifices because they need to do so to reach their objective, and when they reach the objective they feel a sense of real accomplishment.
But would you ever hold your breath underwater to the point where your body is wracked with spasms, called involuntarily breathing movements, and your brain and every instinct in your body is urgently telling you that you need to breathe — just to see how long you can go, to the point where your body is saturated with internal carbon dioxide? The New Yorker published an article about the competition in extreme breath-holding, and recounted the experience of one American diver who stayed underwater, holding his breath, for 8 minutes and 35 seconds — which isn’t even a world record. He became hypoxic and experienced tunnel vision, but seemed satisfied with his experience in pushing his body well past its normal limits.
I read the article and concede, as someone who as a kid enjoyed sitting on the bottom of the swimming pool at Portage Country Club, blowing bubbles, that being able to hold your breath for more than eight and a half minutes is impressive — but I still wonder, why do it? Why risk some kind of serious physical or mental injury just to hold your breath, or climb a sheer rock wall, or engage in some other daredevil stunt? There’s an impulse at work in such people that exists nowhere in my psyche.
Me? I’m perfectly happy to stay well within my limits, and I will promptly obey the signals I get from my brain to draw a breath, or step away from the edge of a precipice, or steer clear of danger. So far, at least, my brain has done a pretty good job of keeping me toes up.