Altitude on the Brain

When I was in middle school, my family and I travelled into the Andes Mountains in Ecuador to a town well above 10,000 feet (3,048 meters) in altitude. I vividly remember the trip because I got extremely sick. The queasiness began when, during a brief scenic stop, the wind blew my mother’s hat off her head in the direction of a steep cliff—steep enough to rival the cliffs Wile E. Coyote used to fall off.

I chased the hat to the cliff's edge, failing to consider my surroundings. I was fortunate not to fall, but about ten minutes after I’d rescued the cap I started to feel sick. Not only had I displayed dangerously poor decision-making in running full speed near a cliff, but the chase also may have been what made me so ill. (And, to make matters worse, my mom was more angry than appreciative.)

Last night, I attended a talk that helped clarify why I might do something so idiotic and why I became sick afterwards.

The talk, titled “Mind the Altitude,” was part of the Brainwave series presented by the Rubin Museum of Art in partnership with New York Chapter of the Alpine Club. Famous mountaineer Kurt Diemberger spoke with Philip Lieberman, a professor of cognitive and linguistic sciences at Brown University, about how high altitudes affect the brain and body. The talk was a fun combination of science and storytelling. Diemberger told fascinating tales from his expeditions on legendary peaks like K2 and Mt. Everest, and Dr. Lieberman presented related scientific research. Diemberger’s accounts and photographs from his expeditions, including his historic first ascents of two mountains, Broad Peak and Dhaulagiri, both over 8,000 meters (26,247 ft.), were incredible.

Altitude, and the resulting low levels of oxygen, can strongly affect the human brain and cognition. Lieberman, who conducted studies of mountaineers on Mt. Everest, described how low oxygen levels at high altitudes can have especially detrimental impacts on linguistic ability and the ability to make decisions and change plans when circumstances change.

Lieberman found that Everest climbers with normal linguistic comprehension at lower altitudes could not understand slightly complex syntax such as “the girl was kissed by the boy” at altitudes over 6,500 meters. In fact, according to Lieberman, most of the climbers’ speech at 6,500 meters resembled that of a person who had experienced a stroke. Lieberman also found striking similarities between climbers at altitudes exceeding 6,500 meters and people with Parkinson’s in regard to their ability to adjust mentally to new situations. Low oxygen levels in the brain impair the basal ganglia, he said, which plays a major role in our capacity to adapt to changing circumstances like storms, malfunctioning equipment, and other unforeseen issues.

EverestMt. Everest from Kalapatthar (Credit: Pavel Novak)

According to Diemberger, the key in these situations is taking a moment to focus your thoughts. He described how, as an experienced mountaineer, he often went into autopilot while climbing, and when something rare or unexpected would occur at high altitudes, he often found himself mentally lost. Diemberger found that in these circumstances it took an extra mental push to process the situation and make a good decision.

I imagine Dr. Lieberman might attribute my unreasonable hat rescue in Ecuador to my impaired basal ganglia at such a high altitude; Diemberger might just say I was being an idiot. Either way, neither explains why I became so sick. According to both Lieberman and Diemberger, this sickness was likely due to my lack of acclimation to the conditions at the higher altitude. While I was not at 8,000 meters, where Diemberger insisted one should take at least two weeks to acclimate, I was still at an altitude well above what my body was used to. I needed to relax and give my body time to adjust to the higher altitude before running in full speed pursuit of an errant baseball cap.

The process of acclimation is not the same for everyone. If I were Tibetan, I might not have felt sick at all. Certain people are genetically predisposed to acclimate quicker and more easily to high altitudes. Due to generations of genetic adaptation, Tibetans acclimate extremely well to high altitudes, even if they were not raised in Tibet.

“Mind the Altitude” was one of the many talks that will be a part of Brainwaves spring schedule at the Rubin Museum of Art. In fact, there are eleven more scheduled between now and April 28th, including the upcoming talk, “The Robotic Mind”, with cardiac surgeon, Randall Wolf and Brazilian neuroscientist, Miguel Nicolelis this Saturday, March 3rd. Tickets are $20 and the talk begins at 3pm. Go to for tickets.

–Simon Fischweicher


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