The Federalist Papers, CO2 and Cognitive Function:

Jacob Schor ND, FABNO
October 25, 2012

Two hundred and twenty five years ago this month, in October of 1787, The Independent Journal and the New York Packet began publishing a series of essays, seventy-seven in total, that later became known as the Federalist Papers. At the time the authors were anonymous but we now know them to be Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay. They wrote these essays in the hope of influencing the vote to ratify the U.S. Constitution.

You can download the entire book

Or you can read the essays one at a time:

I suggest that you open one of these papers at random and give it a read both to provide an antidote for the mindless political ads we are currently experiencing and because the experience will be relevant to the rest of this newsletter.

These Federalist essays are not easy reading.

There are scholarly formulas to calculate how difficult a piece of writing is to read using various equations that compare word syllables and sentence length. The Flesch-Kincaid method is perhaps the most common formula. Luckily one needn’t do the word counting and the math by hand anymore; various online websites will do it for you. This website listed below, calculated that the introductory paragraphs of the Federalist are written at.a level appropriate for ‘grade 20.’

Let me say that again: the writing in the Federalist is appropriate for grade 20.

Now resist the temptation to score the writing posted on the websites of our nation’s current political campaigns as that information will not be relevant to this newsletter.

It would seem that our nation’s citizens two hundred and twenty five years ago, given that the Federalist Papers were written for the populace to read and debate, may have been better thinkers than we are today.

Now hold that thought. I’m going to leap to a seemingly unrelated topic, giving Dr Bloom something to complain about.

A paper by Satish et al from the State University of New York, Syracuse published toward the end of September argues that we should consider carbon dioxide (CO2) as an indoor pollutant. Generally CO2 is considered an inert gas, not having a big impact on human physiology. Indoor levels tend to rise as people produce CO2, the result of their metabolism. Indoor levels are measured to gauge rates of ventilation and the assumption is that high CO2 levels are an indirect measure of other indoor air pollutants.

According to this new study, even slightly elevated levels of CO2 impair cognition, our ability to think clearly. In this study 22 young healthy adults were assessed while they performed complex intellectual tasks on a computer as carbon dioxide levels of the air they were breathing were increased up to 1,000 parts per million from a baseline of 600 ppm. Participant performance fell on six of nine specific tests. When CO2 levels were raised even higher, up to 2,500 ppm, performance fell even more, “…large and statistically significant reductions occurred in seven scales of decision-making performance.”

Up until now, a room with 1,000 ppm of CO2 was considered well ventilated. Outdoor CO2 levels are currently slightly below 400 ppm. Indoor levels of 600 ppm are thought to be very good. Indoor levels vary with how many people are in a room and how often indoor air is exchanged with outdoor air through ventilation. It is not uncommon to find indoor levels at 2,500 ppm. Our current standards for CO2 levels were developed largely with the aim of reducing body odor; no one was thinking about cognitive function.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see the problem this poses. As we attempt to make our living spaces, schools and workplaces more energy efficient, we tend to reduce ventilation rates and this increase CO2 levels.

Carbon dioxide levels in the air we breathe have increased dramatically over the last few centuries and are still increasing. [This is that whole global warming business that I am not going to write about here.] There are charts online that track atmospherice CO2 levels. The data come from ice cores from Antartica, in particular the Taylor Dome and the Law Dome.

Measurements of modern CO2 levels come from the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii. I suspect they have really nice air there.

The combined data from these various sources suggest that atmospheric CO2 levels were about 250 to 270 ppm for most of the past 10,000 years. In the last century they have increased to nearly 400 ppm and continue to rise. In 2008 the average reading at Mauna Loa was approximately 384 ppm. By 2011, the levels were ten points higher at 394 ppm.

By this point you’ve figured out where I’m leading. If increasing CO2 levels from 600 ppm t 1,000 ppm makes a measureable impact on our thinking, could the slow transition from 200 ppm, at which the human brain evolved, to 400 ppm or 600+ ppm indoors have an impact? Could increasing CO2 levels in the air explain why, in 1787, a newspaper reader in New York City could read the Federalist Papers and today it would take someone with a PhD to follow the language and logic that our founding fathers used in political discourse?

One perhaps positive thing about increasing CO2 levels is that plants thrive; the extra CO2 allows them to grow faster and lusher. Thus in many green houses the atmosphere is purposefully artificially enriched with CO2. In his manual, 'Indoor Marijuana Horticulture,' Jorge Cervantes suggests an optimum level of CO2 for growing this particular crop of 1200 to 1500 ppm. Well into the range where cognitive function deteriorates. And here we thought all these pot growers were just stoned. It’s the CO2.

Unfortunately this CO2 benefit to plants isn’t evenly distributed. There is some evidence that as CO2 levels rise, the growth rate of poison ivy may outpace most other plants and poison ivy will ‘take over’ our landscape.

So our future heirs may not only be less literate, they may also suffer from constant pruritis.


Environ HealtAh Perspect. 2012 Sep 20. [Epub ahead of print]
Is CO2 an Indoor Pollutant? Direct Effects of Low-to-ModerateCO2 Concentrations on Human Decision-Making Performance.
Satish U, Mendell MJ, Shekhar K, Hotchi T, Sullivan D, Streufert S, Fisk WB.

Two more interesting graphs of CO2 levels:
A graph of CO2 levels over the last 10,000 years up until 2,000:

Mauna Loa is used as an example of rising carbon dioxide levels because it is the longest, continuous series of directly measured atmospheric CO2. In September 2012, the average CO2 level was 391.

Monthly CO2 readings from Mauna Loa: