Are we high ?

During deepsea dives, the nitrogen in breathable air has been replaced with an inert gas, usually helium, to avoid the ravages of nitrogen narcosis--the so-called "raptures of the deep." Nitrogen under elevated partial pressure increases its concentration in the blood, forms clathrates, or solution hydrates, and displaces oxygen, all of which contribute to a narcotic condition in brain activity. A similar environment under an ocean of air, such as exists today and--as here argued--an atmosphere that was far more massive in the past, would have contributed to a gradual lessening over the eons to a more mild sort of nitrogen narcosis that would have brought early mankind out of a primitive instinctual dreamlike state and into the present epoch of a more sentient intelligence. Perhaps in at least this one respect Lamarck was right. But it seems that we have still some way to go.

[...]Up until some 20 years ago I tended to resist the idea of nitrogen being responsible for the deepsea diving condition known as nitrogen narcosis--more commonly romanticized as "raptures of the deep"--despite its being known for more than a century to cause a drugged condition. But very soon thereafter I became convinced by a number of reports from clinical research that the phenomenon itself was due to the pressure-induced formation of a certain class of nitrogen-containing neuro-clathrates, which in physio-chemical terms means it acts as a neurological blockade, or in other words a narcotic. Such clathrates are considered rather loose associations of nitrogen with water molecules, which themselves are something of a chemical anomaly by existing as stable hydrates in a solution. But under the hyperbaric environment of deepsea diving I wouldn't be surprised to learn that a reversible chemical transformation was actually taking place, where the nitrogen and water molecules combined in such a way as to mimic the narco-neurological effects of nitrous oxide, N2O, known more prosaically as "laughing gas."

A couple of the so-called noble gases that also form clathrates-- krypton and xenon--were found to have a similar narcotic effect. Both of these gases are several times more soluble in water than nitrogen. And, curiously, despite the profound chemical inertness of these gaseous elements, xenon has been made to combine with oxygen to form perxenic acid, one of the most powerful--albeit unstable--oxidizing agents known. Under the pressures encountered in deepsea diving a trace quantity of a clathrate-forming gas may have an unusually high partial pressure with attendant anesthesia, and narcosis. This is why the special gas mixtures used by deepsea divers and caisson workers have the nitrogen replaced by helium, which doesn't form any nerve-blocking clathrates but merely gives one's voice a higher "Mickey Mouse" pitch.

[...]I'm not sure when I first became convinced of the idea of nitrogen in our atmosphere being responsible for a low-level form of nitrogen narcosis affecting lifeforms on our planet, but over the past two decades this conceptual algorithm still seems to fit. Studies made during the early 1970s at the University of Washington and Northwestern University almost appear to confirm that mankind has been wandering around in a dreamlike wakefulness. These studies clinically demonstrated that the nitrogen in the air we breathe--again, comprising some 78% of the Earth's atmosphere--appears to reduce our comprehension and productiveness by nearly ten percent.

However, these limited-term clinical tests were conducted on subjects who had been exposed all their lives to the normal constituents of our atmosphere, where for just a short time they were deliberately and experimentally conditioned to a helium substitute in place of nitrogen. Notwithstanding, 80% of the group responded with an almost ten percent increase in mental activity. It is qualitatively within the realm of probability that a much longer exposure to a non-anesthetic atmosphere--perhaps from birth--would be instrumental in arousing our dreamlike wakefulness to something of a hyper-consciousness that would raise our minds above the psychosomatic mists which now seem to stem in part from our natural environment.

[...] Was it always like this, where the nitrogen in the air we breathe constituted more than three-quarters of the atmosphere, or argon almost one percent? Did our ancestors in gray antiquity awaken to the dawn of consciousness because of our atmospheric components or in spite of them, or was there some climatic or catastrophic change which roused our forebears out of their animal-like stupefaction? And, perhaps of more immediate importance, what are the physio-chemical differences which separate intellectual genius from us lesser mortals? We must determine if these differences are indeed due to a metabolic uptake of nitrogen at a normal atmospheric pressure of 1.0332 Kg/cm2 (29.97 inches of mercury in everyday parlance).

[...] We're living at the bottom of an ocean of air. Throughout history we have become enraptured with some strange pursuits in this deep. It might be misplaced logic to emphasize the narcotic effects of nitrogen on humankind, but we have been far too submissive in accepting without question our primordial environment as the only unchallenged alternative, and nothing should be that sacrosanct. Appeals by certain environmentally sensitive factions to return to the pristine gardens of Earth, besides being entreaties to revert to a land that never was, seem to be a craving for the soporific of forgetfulness. Whatever we make of our environment, we will always be in constant conflict with it. We can never go back even if we wanted to, because we don't know how. And, if nitrogen does indeed prove to be the principal rapturous culprit in our oceanic air--all 5.2 x 1018 kilograms of it--we'll find a way to replace it with something more acceptable and amenable to our needs, as for example building domed cities. Or, at least we'll try, for mankind will always do what our species thinks must be done.

[Source: Frederic B. Jueneman - Raptures of the Deep]