Like many people, I have sweet childhood memories of inhaling the gas from helium balloons to talk in a funny, high-pitched voice. But as I got older, I was startled to learn that the same action — swapped with a slightly different gas — could provide a delirious, intoxicating effect. I’m talking, of course, about whippits.
For those who don’t know, whippits are an intoxicant named after the unlikely source from which they come: the chargers inside a whipped cream canister. Filled with nitrous oxide, these chargers are used to give whipped cream its fluffy quality, but they can also be emptied into balloons for someone to inhale. This induces a lightheaded sense of euphoria, goofiness and slowed-down time, effects that last for anywhere from 30 seconds to a minute. Nitrous oxide, which is also known as laughing gas, has been used as an anesthetic for dental work and other surgeries for centuries — whippits are just a more readily available means of obtaining the same high in smaller doses.
One weird side effect of whippits, however, is that they change the pitch and tone of your voice, making you sound cartoonish and low. The first time I did them, I didn’t even realize it had happened — I was too busy giggling and making out with friends to listen to my own voice. But after noticing that one of my date’s descriptions of anarchist theory sounded like a valley girl version of Kermit the Frog, I became fixated on this strange sounding side effect of the dizzying inhalant.
The auditory quality of whippits is warped, almost like you slowed down the rotation of a vinyl record or inhibited the vocal box of a sultry nightmare clown. But why does the sweet-tasting gas give our voice such a bizarre baritone?
The answer is deceptively simple: Nitrous oxide gas is thick as hell. In fact, it’s 50 percent denser than air. “Nitrous has more densely packed molecules, making sound travel through your vocal cords more slowly,” says Christina Manzano, a professor of physics at the University of California, Riverside. “Slower vibrations mean lower pitch, which makes everything sound funnier.” The vocal change, though, is even shorter than the high, only lasting until you exhale.
Helium, meanwhile, is less dense than air. That means sound passes through it at least three times faster than it would through air, which is what makes your voice sound so high-pitched when you suck on a birthday balloon.
But while using inhalants like nitrous oxide can be fun, it’s also pretty dangerous. Whippits reduce the amount of oxygen you receive, which can kill brain cells, and heavy use can seriously affect your heart and lungs. Also, it’s important to keep in mind that they can make you pass out, so they’re not very safe to do while standing up as you could collapse and hit your head.
It’s not the most titillating answer to a question that has perplexed me for months, but maybe it’ll sound funnier after I sit down, wrap my lips around the pipe of a whip cream canister, fall back onto the couch half-conscious and explain it while sounding like one of those spooky neon elephants from Dumbo.