A sobering thought

In scuba diving, pressure increases by one atmosphere with each ten meters of depth.   As pressure increases, people breathing standard air mix gradually get silly.  This is mainly caused by the increasing nitrogen pressure, and is called nitrogen narcosis, or sometimes, rapture of the deeps.  The effect of nitrogen narcosis is a bit like being drunk – closer to sniffing nitrous oxide.

The effects are measurable, and sometimes noticeable,  at one extra atmosphere, ten meters down.  As a rough guide, divers sometimes cite ‘Martini’s Law’, the notion that the effect of nitrogen narcosis is like that of an martini for each extra ten meters of depth.

Deep divers deal with this problem by using funny air mixes that replace some or all nitrogen with helium, which doesn’t cause narcosis.

All this has an obvious implication that I have never seen discussed. If breathing two atmosphere of nitrogen is like having one drink, what would people be like if they were breathing a zero-nitrogen mixture?   The natural conclusion is that they would be one drink under sober. Technically, they would be slightly knurd.

They should have slightly faster reflexes.  Actually, this is known to be true, from studies of pilots breathing pure oxygen. In other respects, you would expect that the changes would be in the opposite direction to those caused by intoxication.  Instead of  a warm glow,  a bit of dysphoria, Since a little narcosis causes a mild impairment in reasoning and judgment, you might see a mild improvement.  This could be important, since the world suffers from a glaring shortage of good judgment.

If this idea is correct, how would we go about implementing it?  Pure oxygen isn’t the right approach. The normal three pounds of O2 pressure, by itself, is too low: buildings would implode.  A full atmosphere of oxygen is bad for your health.  Obviously, we would want a full atmosphere of pressure, 80% helium and 20% oxygen.  With that, you need to make a building airtight, but that’s all: there are no structural problem.  This all costs money, so we (government and market) would provide this boon to people whose intellect and judgment are of unusual importance.  The doors of Congress and the White House would be replaced by airlocks. You’d see top-notch research professors wearing breathing masks and carrying an air tank. Any professor walking across campus with a bare face would be low-status, probably a sociologist or cultural anthropologist. High-class hedge funds like Renaissance Technologies would put their whole campus under a transparent dome.

Since the US is the main producer of helium, we would have the world by the trachea.  We could strictly limit helium exports, just as China has limited rare-earth exports,  giving the US a strategic edge.

When talking on the phone, you would immediately know that you were talking to a real scientific player – say a member of the National Academy of Sciences – because he would sound just like Donald Duck.

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29 Responses to A sobering thought

  1. Karl Narveson says:

    Isn’t argon cheaper than helium?

  2. Robert Dole says:

    I would be really, really shocked to see 30% proven true under reasonable experimental conditions.

  3. JayMan says:

    While it’s rare on Earth, neon comes to mind as a good buffer gas. I wonder what its effects are if inhaled?

    • winestock says:

      Neon still has a narcotic effect, though not as much as nitrogen. Helium has no narcotic effect, alone among breathable gases. At above twenty atmospheres, it does cause high-pressure nervous syndrome, though. At that pressure, that sealed dome over the hedge fund would blow up anyway (perhaps not such a bad outcome).

      Helium on earth seems to come entirely from alpha particle decay in radioactive elements. Not a very renewable resource. The fact that the United States has the lion’s share is nice.

      One nitpick: intelligence isn’t the same as good judgement. Then again, I trust that Mr. Cochran is being facetious, so there’s no point in arguing either way.

  4. winestock says:

    Funny. Problem is that the effect is only worthwhile if those in charge are halfway sensible to begin with. Putting neocons or Keynesians in that environment wouldn’t yield much improvement.

  5. winestock says:

    As for dysphoria, if someone is breathing that helium-oxygen mix for a long time, wouldn’t that increase the odds for suicide. Any studies? Jacques Cousteau and his crew used that mix a lot, but I couldn’t find any links for the connection.

    Perhaps hedge fund guys, Boasians, and congresscritters offing themselves wouldn’t be such a horrible thing in the long run, but we need those productive geniuses.

  6. dearieme says:

    I was reading the other day that Humphrey Davy did early experiments on breathing nitrous oxide – “laughing gas” – and suggested it be tried as an anaesthetic. His suggestion was entirely ignored and anaesthesia was only introduced decades later.

  7. Polynices says:

    I feel like pointing out that xenon all by itself works well as a volatile anesthetic. Wacky stuff.

  8. Aleksei Riikonen says:

    Finally, a rational reason to start wearing a Darth Vader breathing mask everywhere I go.

  9. billswift says:

    >you need to make a building airtight, but that’s all: there are no structural problem.

    You need to make it helium tight, unless you want to go through your supply pretty quickly, and that’s a trickier matter, helium atoms are slippery little devils. Maybe move all your geniuses to mountaintops where the pressure is low enough they can breathe pure oxygen.

  10. Ron Pavellas says:

    I can testify to the “Donald Duck” effect. When aboard an aircraft carrier, 1956-57, I sometimes hung out with the aerographers. A job they had was to fill large balloons with helium (stored in the familiar metal cylinders around 5 feet tall), attach atmospheric measuring equipment at their base + radio equipment to transmit the findings back to the ship, then let them go from the flight deck. We occasionally played around with breathing the gas to talk to each other as ducks. We were quite young.

  11. Wes says:

    So what about sleeping on oxygen? Using one of those machines and just breathing it at night?

  12. j says:

    Nitrogen solubility increases with pressure, so at higher pressure the blood contains more of the gas, causing the bends effect (and stupidity). With lower pressures like on the Himalayas, the blood contains less nitrogen, which should improve intelligence but it doesnt. Breathing oxygen rich air with less nitrogen does not seem to affect intelligence. Breathing pure oxygen is not only unhealthy but is not associated with improved cognitive capabilities. To stay sober and think sobering thoughts is better achieved by avoiding alcohol, but that is very bad for the circulation. Anyway, why should one wish to stay sober? High alcohol consumption is statistically associated with high IQ. Or is it?

  13. Pingback: Better Thinking Through Helium « Happolati's Miscellany

  14. jamesg1103 says:

    I am adding “knurd” to my list of “backward” words.

    It’s a very short list: “yob” a Briticism for a misbehaving juvenile male and “Oprah” homage to a movie mute.

    We need erom!

  15. Anonymous says:

    Hmmm…might this explain why some everest summitters refuse their sherpa’s advice to descent (when weather turns bad) and die as a result…because the lack of oxygen at high altitude makes them stupid?

    • qwerty@uiop.nl says:

      No. Climbing mountains when you don’t have to, just for sports, implies you were already stupid, strong-willed and stubborn to begin with.

  16. Jim says:

    Oxygen uptake involves binding with hemoglobin. I assume nitrogen uptake is just ordinary solubility. If under normal conditions most of the hemoglobin in the blood leaving the lungs is saturated with oxygen then maybe increasing the oxygen content of the air may not greatly change the amount of oxygen being delivered to the body’s tissues. I don’t actually know anything about this but one process is a biologically active one and the other is not.

  17. billswift says:

    This post got me wondering about what effects different partial pressures of CO2 might have on human functioning. I tried Googling and searching and browsing the nasa_techdocs section of archive.org and couldn’t find anything, except the long known fact that way too much carbon dioxide causes problems. Anyone know of a source?

  18. gwern says:

    Has anyone actually studied this? I’d guess not, but I’m continually surprised what has been studied by someone at some point…

    • Anonymous says:

      here is a 1975 paper completely replacing nitrogen with helium and finding improved performance on some kind of mental test, which is probably mainly reaction time.

  19. Sam says:

    When I was in the U.S. Air Force I found pure oxygen was a decent cure for hangovers. 🙂

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