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Submerging the face into water causes the mammalian diving reflex, which is found in all known mammals (including humans, although it is less pronounced), but especially in aquatic mammals (as, for example, whales and seals.) The reflex results in a set of complex physiological adaptations these mammals have evolved that puts the body into oxygen saving mode to maximize the time that can be spent under water. The reflex includes three processes that are triggered in turn:

  1. Bradycardia is the first response to submersion. Immediately upon facial contact with cold water, the human heart rate slows down ten to twenty-five percent.[citation needed] Seals experience changes that are even more dramatic, going from about 125 beats per minute to as low as 10 on an extended dive.[1] Slowing the heart rate lessens the need for bloodstream oxygen, leaving more to be used by other organs.
  2. Next, peripheral vasoconstriction sets in. When under high pressure induced by deep diving, capillaries in the extremities start closing off, stopping blood circulation to those areas. Note that vasoconstriction usually applies to arterioles, but in this case is completely an effect of the capillaries. Toes and fingers close off first, then hands and feet, and ultimately arms and legs stop allowing blood circulation, leaving more blood for use by the heart and brain. Human musculature accounts for only 12% of the body's total oxygen storage, and the body's muscles tend to suffer cramping during this phase. Aquatic mammals have as much as 25 to 30% of their oxygen storage in muscle, and thus they can keep working long after capillary blood supply is stopped.
  3. Finally is the blood shift that occurs only during very deep dives. When this happens, organ and circulatory walls allow plasma/water to pass freely throughout the thoracic cavity, so its pressure stays constant and the organs aren't crushed. In this stage, the lungs' alveoli fill up with blood plasma, which is reabsorbed when the animal leaves the pressurized environment. This stage of the diving reflex has been observed in humans (such as world champion freediver Martin Štěpánek) during extremely deep (over 90 metres or 300 ft) freedives.

Thus, both a conscious and an unconscious person can survive longer without oxygen under water than in a comparable situation on dry land. Children tend to survive longer than adults when deprived of oxygen underwater. The exact mechanism for this effect has been debated and may be a result of brain cooling similar to the protective effects seen in patients treated with deep hypothermia.[2][3]

When the face is submerged, receptors that are sensitive to cold within the nasal cavity and other areas of the face supplied by cranial nerve V (trigeminal) relay the information to the brain and then innervate cranial nerve X, which is part of the autonomic nervous system. This causes bradycardia and peripheral vasoconstriction. Blood is removed from the limbs and all organs but the heart and the brain, creating a heart-brain circuit and allowing the mammal to conserve oxygen.

In humans, the mammalian diving reflex is not induced when limbs are introduced to cold water. Mild bradycardia is caused by the subject holding their breath without submerging the face within water.[2] When breathing with face submerged this causes a diving reflex which increases proportionally to decreasing water temperature.[citation needed] Activating the diving reflex with cold water can be used to treat supraventricular tachycardia.[4] However the greatest bradycardia effect is induced when the subject is holding breath with face submerged.

See also[]


  1. Thornton SJ, Hochachka PW (2004) Oxygen and the diving seal. Undersea Hyperb Med. 31,1 81–95 [1]
  2. 2.0 2.1 Lundgren, Claus EG; Ferrigno, Massimo (eds). (1985). Physiology of Breath-hold Diving. 31st Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society Workshop. UHMS Publication Number 72(WS-BH)4-15-87..
  3. Mackensen GB, McDonagh DL, Warner DS (March 2009). Perioperative hypothermia: use and therapeutic implications. J. Neurotrauma 26 (3): 342–58.
  4. Mathew PK (January 1981). Diving reflex. Another method of treating paroxysmal supraventricular tachycardia. Arch. Intern. Med. 141 (1): 22–3.

Further reading[]

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External links[]

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