Of all the gases humans excrete, the most bountiful, and arguably the most deadly, is exhaled carbon dioxide.
There is a forgotten bit of American medical history that reveals the bizarre features of the toxicity of carbon dioxide. In 1926, before the advent of modern psychiatric medications, some American psychiatrists began experimenting with the use of inhaled carbon dioxide for the treatment of schizophrenia and psychoses. At the time, there were no effective treatments other than electroshock.
One of the most successful of these researchers was Dr Ladislas J. Meduna, a Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Illinois College of Medicine in Chicago.
High levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) did in fact have some success in treating schizophrenia, but it also produced Out of Body (OBE) and seemingly spiritual experiences. The following text is quoted from a book called Carbon Dioxide Therapy. A Neurophysiological Treatment of Nervous Disorders, published in 1950 and authored by Meduna.Meduna administered by mask between 20 and 30 breaths of a gas mixture of 30% CO2, 70% O2. From pg. 22 of his book we find,
“Any attempt to define the sensory phenomena during CO2 anesthesia, in terms of dream, hallucination, illusions, etc., would be futile. The actual material would support any hypothesis. Some of the sensory phenomena would direct us to define them as hallucinations. Some of these phenomena are felt by the patients as “real dreams”; others obviously are dreamy repetitions of real events in the past or of past dreams. I believe therefore that any classification of these phenomena in terms of dream or hallucination would be not only meaningless, but directly misleading; the patient is not “sleeping” in the physiological sense, nor is he in the state of consciousness which we usually assume to be present in true hypnagogic hallucinations.”
“One subject, after 20 respirations of the gas, reported seeing a “bright light, like the sun.”
“It was a wonderful feeling. It was marvelous. I felt very light and didn’t know where I was. For a moment I thought: ‘Now isn’t that funny. I am right here and I don’t know whether I am dreaming or not.’ And then I thought that something was happening to me. This wasn’t at night. I was not dreaming. And then it felt as if there were a space of time when I knew something had happened to me and I wasn’t sure what it was. And then I felt a wonderful feeling as if I was out in space.”
“After the second breath” — reported a 29 year-old healthy female nurse who had taken a treatment – “came an onrush of color… then the colors left and I felt myself being separated; my soul drawing apart from the physical being, was drawn upward seemingly to leave the earth and to go upward where it reached a greater Spirit with Whom there was a communion, producing a remarkable, new relaxation and deep security. Through this communion I seemed to receive assurance that the petite problems or whatever was bothering the human being that was me huddled down on the earth, would work out all right and that I had no need to worry.”
“In this spirituelle I felt the Greater Spirit even smiling indulgently upon me in my vain little efforts to carry on by myself and I pressed close the warmth and tender strength and felt assurance of enough power to overcome whatever lay ahead for me as a human being.”
Meduna summarized that preceding case by stating, “In this beautiful experience we can discern almost all the constants of the CO2 experience: (1) color; (2) geometric patterns; (3) movement; (4) doubleness of personality; and (5) divination or feelings of esoteric importance.”
Meduna went on to admit that “Not all of the sensory phenomena experienced by the patients are of celestial beauty and serenity. Some of them are horrifying beyond description.”
In 1971, Chris Lambertsen, M.D., Ph.D., from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, and considered to be the father of special warfare diving by Navy SEALS, published a careful examination of the physiological consequences of the Meduna mixture. He found that inhalation of 30% CO2 in oxygen would cause unconsciousness and convulsions within 1-3 min. The precipitating event for loss of consciousness seemed to be a catastrophic increase in the acidity of the blood due to the large amount of carbonic acid produced by the CO2 inhalation. This raises the possibility that the experiences noted by Meduna were caused by pre-convulsive events within the brain.
Since then the medical community has deemed carbon dioxide “treatments” as not only dangerous but ineffective compared to modern psychiatric medication. Meduna’s mixture is no longer used.
While at the Naval Medical Research Institute, I was my own research subject in a study of the effects of rebreathing CO2 concentrations up to 8%. That was a carbon dioxide concentration that some Navy SEALS had claimed could be tolerated without impairment.
I was not under water, but riding a stationary bicycle ergometer in the laboratory, simulating breathing on a closed-circuit underwater breathing apparatus (in diving vernacular, a rebreather.) Although oxygen was being added as I consumed it, there was no carbon dioxide scrubber (a container of carbon dioxide absorbing material), so the test was examining what happens when a scrubber canister is no longer functioning properly. At 7% inspired CO2 I stopped the exercise, feeling a little abnormal. However, I was surprised at how unimpaired I seemed to be; that was, until I attempted to dismount the ergometer. I almost fell and needed help removing myself from the bicycle to a chair.
The single-minded and simple-minded task of exercising had hidden a growing central nervous system impairment. Like someone intoxicated with alcohol, I could not judge my level of impairment until a task requiring some coordination was required.
So we see that high levels of carbon dioxide intoxication can lead to profound disturbances of the central nervous system. In upcoming posts we’ll see how elevated carbon dioxide levels and the control of respiratory ventilation can interact to put rebreather divers at risk.
Much of the above is from a nonfiction book project currently under review. The working title for the book is “Collected Tales of the Spiritual and Paranormal.”