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Oxygen Deficiency and Vision Impairment: What Happens to Our Body and Brain During Air Travel

Although air travel has long been commonplace, scientists have only recently begun to explore how they affect the human body. The publication told about this in more detail. with the BBC.

Photo: Shutterstock

Watching a movie on a plane with headphones on a tiny screen is hardly a captivating aesthetic experience. However, those who fly often have noticed more than once that quite ordinary films can seriously stir up emotions.

A frivolous comedy or even a cartoon suddenly makes us cry, which for sure would not have happened to us on earth.

Physicist and TV presenter Brian Cox, as well as musician Ed Sheeran, admitted that this happens to them from time to time.

In a recent survey conducted by London Gatwick Airport, 15% of men and 6% of women said that watching a movie during a flight can really move them more than ever.

One well-known airline has even begun to warn its passengers that watching movies on board can affect their emotional state.

Of course, there are many reasons why we are in a fragile mental state on board an airplane: separation from loved ones, anxiety over travel, homesickness.

However, there is also evidence that the physical conditions of flight affect the human psyche.

Many studies show that at an altitude of 10 meters above the ground inside a sealed metal pipe, strange metamorphoses are taking place in our minds.

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Our mood can change, otherwise sensory feelings work, even itching in the body is possible.

“There has been little research on this issue in the past, because for healthy people such issues are not a big problem,” says Jochen Hinkelbein, President of the German Society for Aerospace Medicine and Deputy Director of Emergency Medicine at the University of Cologne.

“However, as air travel has become cheaper and more popular, there are now many more elderly or poor health passengers among passengers. This stimulates research in this area, ”explains Hinkelbein.

The cabin of an aircraft is, without a doubt, an unusual environment for the human body.

Atmospheric pressure here, as in the mountains at an altitude of 2,5 km, air humidity is lower than in the arid deserts of the world. The air that is fed into the aircraft cabin is at a temperature of 10°C in order to cool the heat from human bodies and electronic devices.

Reduced atmospheric pressure reduces the amount of oxygen in the blood of passengers by 6-25%. If such a lack of oxygen were diagnosed in a hospital, you would immediately be prescribed artificial administration.

However, on board an aircraft, such a decline is usually not harmful to healthy people. But for older passengers or those who have breathing problems, this can be a problem.

However, even a slight oxygen deficiency (hypoxia) can affect our ability to think.

With a lack of oxygen, which is felt at an altitude of 3,6 km above sea level, in healthy adults, memory impairment, a decrease in the ability to perform calculations and make decisions are noted.

This is why aviation safety regulations require pilots to wear oxygen masks if the atmospheric pressure in the cockpit rises above the inherent level of 3,8 km.

Studies show that even at an altitude of 2,1 km, our reaction speed decreases and our mental abilities deteriorate somewhat.

Perhaps this should be borne in mind by those who like to play computer games during the flight.

“Although for a healthy person, a passenger or a pilot, such changes are practically not noticeable. But for a person who has health problems or even a common cold, aviation hypoxia can worsen the lack of oxygen and significantly affect cognitive abilities,” notes Hinkelbein.

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In any case, the lack of oxygen has another obvious effect on the brain - it simply causes fatigue.

“As soon as the plane takes off, I feel sleepy and can take a nap,” says Hinkelbein. “This, of course, is not a loss of consciousness due to a lack of oxygen, but a consequence of hypoxia.”

However, if you manage to stay awake and wait for the crew to dim the lights in the cabin, you can feel other effects of low atmospheric pressure.

Human vision deteriorates by 5-10% already at an altitude of 1,5 km. The reason is that the photoreceptor cells in the retina, thanks to which we are able to see in the dark, cannot function properly without sufficient oxygen.

Air travel confuses our other senses as well.

Low atmospheric pressure and dry air reduce the sensitivity of our taste buds to salty and sweet foods by about 30%.

A study commissioned by Lufthansa showed that the spicy flavors in tomato sauce are better savored on flight.

Dry air also reduces the sharpness of our sense of smell, as a result of which food tastes more bland. This is why airlines typically add more spice and salt to their meals.

However, the fact that our sense of smell becomes less acute has its advantages. After all, a change in atmospheric pressure often causes flatulence in passengers.

Thin air creates other inconveniences as well. One recent experiment showed that after about three hours, in conditions similar to air travel, people begin to complain of body discomfort.

Low humidity further aggravates this condition, so it’s not surprising that we find it so difficult to sit out a long flight.

Austrian researchers recently calculated that our skin loses up to 37% of its moisture during long flights, which can cause itching.

Low levels of air pressure and humidity, among other things, increase the effect of alcohol on the body and cause a severe hangover the next day.

And for those who suffer from aerophobia (fear of flying), there is more bad news.

"Hypoxia increases anxiety," explains Valerie Martindale, who heads the Aerospace Medicine Association at King's College London.

Air travel isn't just anxiety-provoking. Several studies have shown that being on board an aircraft negatively affects a person's mental state by increasing tension and making them less welcoming.

Flying drains energy and impairs the body's ability to deal with stress.

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“We have shown that pressure equivalent to an altitude of 1,8-2,4 km can affect a person's emotional state,” says Stephen Legg, professor of ergonomics at Messi University in New Zealand, who is studying the effects of mild hypoxia on the human body.

Perhaps this also explains our tearfulness while watching movies on board. Although, as scientific data show, serious changes in mental state occur at an altitude much higher than that at which passenger liners fly.

Recently, Professor Legg found that a person's mood can be affected by dehydration, even if its degree is insignificant.

“So far, we know little about the influence of these factors on the mental and mental state of people,” he notes. “But we do know about the existence of so-called flight fatigue, which occurs during long flights and apparently is the result of the combined influence of all these factors.”

Some studies, however, claim that being in the air actually makes people happier.

Stephen Urening, a film and media science professor at the University of Washington, believes that joy is the source of tears.

The film dispels the boredom of air travel, and the intimate viewing environment from a small screen and with headphones allows us to surrender to our feelings, so that we cry not from longing, but from joy and consolation.

Meanwhile, Jochen Hinkelbein discovered another unexpected effect of air travel.

A study he led with colleagues from the University of Cologne showed that low air pressure is bad for our immune system.

“If we catch a cold or flu while traveling, we often attribute this to climate change, although the real reason may be a weakened immune system. But this hypothesis still needs to be tested, ”he says.

If air travel really weakens our immunity, it also affects our mood. After all, it is known that depression is often a side effect of diseases of the immune system.

“Even with a vaccine, our bodies can react with mood swings that last up to two days,” said Ed Balmore, head of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge, who studies the impact of immune system disorders on a person’s mental state. "It's entirely possible that a 12-hour flight to another part of the globe could have the same effect."

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