Science Interviews

Interview

Sun, 8th Mar 2009

The Science of Sword Swallowing

Dan Meyer

Listen Now    Download as mp3 from the show Your Questions and Swallowing Swords

Dan - My name is Dan Meyer. I'm the president of the Sword Swallowers Federation International. I was honoured to receive the Ignobel Prize in medicine last year for a paper that I co-wrote called 'Sword Swallowing and its Side-Effects' that was published in the British Medical Journal.

Dan MeyerChris - What are those side effects?

Dan - Well, one of them is death. We know of 29 sword swallowers who have died of sword-swallowing-related injuries. Other side effects are what we call sword throats. You get that when you begin sword swallowing.

Chris - Different from a sore throat?

Dan - Well, a lot of sword swallowing you put a D on it and it sounds better!

Chris - Anatomically speaking, when you swallow a sword you are quite literally inserting something straight through your mouth and straight into your stomach.

Dan - Exactly, all the way down. People think it's just a simple repress the gag reflex and that's it. That's really just the tip of the iceberg.

Chris - Or the tip of the sword, even?

Dan - The tip of the sword. You have to repress the gag reflex first, then you have to flip back your epiglottis in your throat, repress the peristalsis reflex which is 22 pairs of muscles all the way down to your stomach, nudge your heart to the left then relax your lower oesophageal sphincter just before it goes into the stomach then repress the wretch reflex in the stomach. There's a lot to it.

Chris - When did you start doing this?

Dan - I started learning in 1997. It took me three years of practise. It takes most people three years to seven years to learn how to do it. It takes another five years to master it.

Chris - When you say learning to switch off all those reflexes, there's something going the wrong way down my gullet and it's hard and it's long and it's a sword. How do you learn? This isn't self-taught, presumably? It's not something you do in front of the bathroom mirror.

Dan - Actually, it is self-taught. Almost everybody has to learn to do it themselves. Sometimes people will get a mentor that will teach them. Even if you have a mentor you have to do it yourself. You have to learn the mechanism inside the body to flip the epiglottis closed and do all that type of thing.

Chris - What possessed you to write this paper, that got you the Ignobel Prize?

Dan - Well, a serious injury actually. I had punctured my stomach while I was swallowing five swords at one time and as the president of the Sword Swallowers Association I knew all the sword swallowers world-wide. When I realised there was very little medical information in the medical journals or any of the medical books I said, we've got to research this so the doctors have some place they can turn for help. The results of our study was that nearly each of us has at least one serious injury at some point or another. You do this enough it's like Russian roulette. You will get hurt. One of the things we learned, curiously enough, for most sword swallowers, swallowing a single sword you don't have that many injuries comparatively speaking until you start doing something unusual like swallowing multiple swords. In my case, I was swallowing 5-6 swords with a macaw on my shoulder. She started climbing down my neck, down my collar; I turned my head while I had 5 swords down my throat and it pinched some. I had a little scissoring in my stomach and it [almost] cost me my life.

X-Ray of Dan Meyer showing sword swallowing in actionChris - When did you realise that was a pretty serious injury? Was it immediate?

Dan - It was immediate. It was a pain in the chest. Sometimes we get that where it's some bruising, muscular bruising and that type of thing. If you drink a lot of cold ice water and let it go for a few days sometimes it'll heal itself. In this case it was okay for about a week. A week later I was swallowing five swords again and my stomach retched upwards. That time I knew it. I ended up going to the hospital. I had fluid around my lungs, my heart. I couldn't breathe. My heart couldn't beat very well because it had so much fluid around it. It almost killed me.

Chris - Have you, presumably, returned to the art since then?

Dan - I did exactly a month to the day. I had a film shoot to do. I did it and I've been back in the saddle ever since.

Chris - Is this your full time occupation? Is this how you earn your money?

Dan - It is. It's my full-time occupation. Actually it's also my passion. I absolutely love sword swallowing and studying it.

Chris - What did you do before you became a sword swallower?

Dan - I actually worked in the music industry in Nashville, Tennessee for about twenty years. Then I got married and moved to Alabama and was selling cars for a few months and absolutely hated it until my manager said 'you've got to do something to make the car sales very memorable.' I said, oh I can do that. So I offered to swallow a sword any time someone bought a car from me and it became famous in all the papers and all around the United States. It was a lot of fun and it kept me in practise too.

Chris - And now you do it professionally. Would you do it professionally for me today?

Dan - Possibly, yes. What I have here: it's a 30inch silver sword. You can feel it's a bit heavy.

Chris - This is no trickery. This is a real sword.

Dan - Yes. There's no buttons. Nothing will fold up in the handle. This one will go down to about my belly button or about my belt buckle. But it is -

<knocks sword against desk>

Dan - It is solid steel. What I'm going to do is flip back my epiglottis, slide it down my oesophagus all the way down to my stomach. I'll let you narrate this as it goes down.

Chris - Okay. What he's now doing is licking the blade with his he's actually got the sword in his mouth, running it sideways across his tongue to lubricate, presumably.

Dan - To lubricate it, also to feel for nicks and burs. Also to warm up the blade, it's a little chilly from being outside.

Chris - He's going to do it. Oh my god. It's right the way down through the back of his throat and down into his stomach. There's no blood on it either, which is a good thing. I might be a doctor but I didn't have a first aid kit which is ...When you do your talk for the Ignobel tour which is taking place at the moment what will you be saying to people? Obviously don't try this at home but what's the point you're trying to make?

Dan - One of the things that I do is try to prove to people that sword swallowing is real. A lot of people don't think it's real. They think it's died out. It's a 4,000 year-old art that started in about 2,000 BC but we also go through and describe our paper, the findings of our paper. The Ignobels are set up to make people think or to make people smile, to make them laugh and to make them think. We do a little of both. You think that paper on sword swallowing injuries of course people get injured! But when people see it and understand it people go oh my gosh, that is real! That's fascinating. It's a lot of fun.

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