Hypercapnia and Mental Confusion

Why does hypercapnia cause mental confusion? I am talking of the mental confusion that robs you of your normal cognitive faculties. Are all mental confusion the same? Are there different stages of mental confusion? Can we infer mental confusion from a person’s physiological status, suggested, in part, by long term changes to their vital signs, weight and general appearance?

Paula experienced mental confusion as scraps of thought. A snippet of a thought in her mind. Usually in response to inner stimuli and sensation [anguish, distress, dread, fear] or to external cues [ my friend is chatting with me like he does every day, unlike my usual- I don’t know what to say, I don’t even understand what he’s saying, how can this even be possible? ]. Then the thought or snippet of thought would immediately fade and disappear which was a bizarre and unsettling experience.

If people understood that Paula was continually responding to her own confusion – every instance- in response to inner or external stimuli,, all day long they would see that

1] she was experiencing continual abnormal,unbearable, physically heightened unpleasant arousal


2] she was experiencing intermittent surprise, embarrassment, guilt and sadness at her inexplicable failure to understand or respond to anybody in her usual manner, as well as her surprise, embarrassment, guilt and sadness and panic at her inability to remember how to teach [she was a math teacher]. What she truly felt sad about was no longer knowing how to do simple arithmetic, never mind no longer being able to do math, never mind know how to teach it. She no longer understood most of what she tried to read, either.


3] without an external stimulus- [actually being in the math class full of student and attempting to teach], her insights and thoughts about her loss of cognition, would fade and disappear, leaving her to try to teach math or chat with her friends and function as usual, only to realize “in that moment” that she no longer knew how, experiencing surprise and dismay every time she failed. It was heartbreaking.

It was a nightmare! And, like the normal experience of mind- was entirely private, personal, and internal, like the sensation of hunger, thirst or pain. No one knew. No one imagined this could happen. No one could empathize. Not even Paula, who had no clue what was happening to her own mind.

Carbon dioxide is a cerebral vasodilator. It increases the amount of blood sent to the brain. Too much blood sent to the brain isn’t good. Neither is too little. Not being able to breathe carbon dioxide out in large enough amounts explains the physically heightened arousal. It is potentially dangerous, and not just to the brain. Too much carbon dioxide in the body can be an toxin and eventually an asphyxiant.

Carbon dioxide is invisible, a gas which is transported in the body. The fresh outside air we breathe has only small amounts. The food we eat is broken down with oxygen to produce carbon dioxide, water and energy [heat].


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