…this is your brain on drugs

“Unfortunately, the sort of individual who is programmed to ignore personal distress and keep pushing for the top is frequently programmed to disregard signs of grave and imminent danger as well. This forms the nub of a dilemma that every Everest climber eventually comes up against: in order to succeed you must be exceedingly driven, but if you’re too driven you’re likely to die. Above 26,000 feet, moreover, the line between appropriate zeal and reckless summit fever becomes grievously thin. Thus the slopes of Everest are littered with corpses.”

– Jon Krakauer, Into Thin Air
The joke here: the “this is the brain on drugs” PSA ran when I was a kid. When asked what I wanted for breakfast, I would say “brains on drugs.” I knew what this was before I had a concept of “eggs.” To this day, I’m still wary of fried eggs.

This past weekend we finally hit the Nolichucky.

Here’s the thing, I’m not much for getting into water. I love being near water. Pools are great. But water-based recreation is not exactly my jam, with fishing being the main exception.

By “hit” I mean “tube” on a Saturday morning. It was a clear day, the river was running at 660 cfs (they don’t rent tubes when it is over 1000, and ideal whitewater rafting happens somewhere around 1300 cfs). Maybe we should have held out for a day it was flowing a little faster, a little higher, as we got to know the texture of the river bottom rather well.

I also don’t do well in the sun. Being purely from the British Isles, my complexion is made for the dark, grey days that keep most folks indoors. I burn easily and there is a family history of skin cancers. I’d like to think I keep myself covered well enough for an hour-long jaunt down the river, but something got me. By the time shored up for the pickup shuttle a feeling of dizzy sickness rolled through me. Taking off the sunglasses introduced an intense glare and every inch of my body felt aflame.

This, from a thing most people find relaxing. A supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again…

NYTimes put out this article about how excessive heat can make us aggressive and stupid. It’s not the heat, or the humidity, we’re all just dumber as brains go about baking in skulls.

R. Jisung Park, an environmental and labor economist at the University of Pennsylvania, looked at high school standardized test scores and found that they fell 0.2 percent for every degree above 72 Fahrenheit. That might not sound like a lot, but it can add up for students taking an exam in an un-air-conditioned room during a 90-degree heat wave.

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We know on the top level that our environments impact our mental health (and, literally, the health of our brains). Walking in the park is good for our bodies as much as it is our brains, people who live in noisy cities have more distractions and typically sleep less, no one is happy in the heat or the extreme cold… What really shook me was a meta study about the relation between high altitude living and rates of severe depression and suicide.

Living High And Feeling Low

For a while we have known that living in places with lower atmospheric pressure typically means having lower blood oxygen content – one of the many reasons why so many die on high altitude climbs like Everest. No oxygen, no brain function.

The study shows that people who live at higher altitudes (above 3000 feet) are more likely to experience depressive episodes more often than people living at lower altitudes. It is worth noting that the data from the study is largely pulled from the Western US.

Combine all of this with the reduction in oxygen content in our atmosphere from burning fossil fuels / climate change and it’s no wonder our mental health is in a rocky state. Year over year, between heat and the lack of O2 floating about, we are likely getting dumber. Of course, why not go for some TikTok doomscroll?

It’s about all I can do with the brainpower I have left.