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You’re Crying on Airplanes Because You’re Oxygen Deprived

The good, the bad and the ugly things we learned about our bodies today

Have you been having trouble expressing your emotions, lately? Are you older, and otherwise less fit than the average Joe? Are you planning on getting on a plane soon, like one of the 28.7 million Americans estimated to be zig zagging around the country during the week of Thanksgiving?

If so, pick a sad movie from your seatback entertainment system and grab some tissues. Because, as the BBC points out, if research being done in Germany on how air travel affects our bodies and minds is right, you’re likely to bawl your eyes out.

Jochen Hinkelbein, president of the German Society of Aerospace Medicine and assistant medical director for emergency medicine at the University of Cologne, has been looking into the different environmental conditions on airplanes — namely, the lower oxygen levels — and how they can affect the elderly and less-fit fliers among us.

Not sure if you knew this, but the air on airplanes is at a significantly lower pressure than the air on the ground, typically 11–12 psi, or the equivalent of 8000 feet of altitude. Lower air pressure means a lower concentration of oxygen in the blood, from 6 percent lower all the way up (down??) to 25 percent.

Now, for normal, healthy people, the air pressure isn’t low enough to have that noticeable of an effect. But for older and the unhealthy, the effects can trigger mild hypoxia. Tunnel vision, decreased sensitivity to tastes and smells, tiredness and, you guessed it, changes to mood are all symptoms of oxygen deprivation.

What’s interesting about that last one is that hypoxia can make us feel more happy than sad, and it’s that happiness, when mixed with the casual viewing of a sad movie like The Zookeeper’s Wife at 36,000 feet, that triggers waterworks, per Stephen Groening, a professor of cinema and media at the University of Washington:

“The configuration of inflight entertainment apparatus produce an effect of intimacy that might lead to heightened emotional responses. Crying on airplanes actually consists of tears of relief, not tears of sadness.”

So if the peanuts don’t taste so good, you’re crying your eyes out watching A Dog’s Life and you’re super tired, don’t freak out — you’re just oxygen deprived.

A few other things we learned about our bodies today: