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Research suggests that high-altitude training can have a positive impact on athletic (especially aerobic) performance. It is also known that high altitude (beyond a certain threshold value) is associated with a decrease in athletic ability and cognitive function. However, is there any evidence suggesting that doing research (or training to do research) at a high altitude could positively impact one's performance after a descend to a lower altitude? Has anyone tried to quantify the effects of the altitude on one's academic/research performance, especially in the range below what is normally considered a high altitude (~5000 ft or 1500 m)?

I am asking this question out of mere curiosity.

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    The trouble with this is that research often takes year of work, years of thinking. In contrast, the boost from coming down from altitude lasts perhaps days. Now a chess match might be an interesting thing to contemplate. Commented Jul 3, 2021 at 15:14
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    @TerryLoring en.chessbase.com/post/… :-)
    – user140322
    Commented Jul 3, 2021 at 15:35
  • Unless you are breathing heavily during your research, it is quite unlikely. The altitude effect is still quite noticeable even at my advanced age when I go down to swim meets. Thinking, not so much.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Jul 3, 2021 at 15:42
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    I can't imagine how this would be useful information. People don't go to Denver (Nepal?) to "train" for research and then move to San Diego (Death Valley?) to actually do it. What is the point? Will you become brilliant by studying for 3 years at Everest Base camp and have it affect your future output when you then move to London? Moreover, the effect, even for pro athletes in pretty much at the margins. In fact, the opposite can be true. The world record one hour distance on a bike was once set (Merckx 1972-1984) at a high altitude (Mexico City). Less wind resistance probably contributed.
    – Buffy
    Commented Jul 3, 2021 at 17:09
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    Pagani et al. (1998), Cortex **34**(2):243-251 might be a good starting point. Commented Jul 3, 2021 at 20:44

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As the comments already indicate, you're not likely to get any useful answers to your question, in particular and also because there is no practical way of making use of the effect if it exists: Unlike sports where you can focus on one event, research is a year-round thing. You can't go to high altitude for a month and then come back for 2 weeks of intense research.

Empirically, however, Colorado hosts two very good research universities, both of which are located at around 5000 ft (1500 m). At least, it seems, the altitude does not negatively affect the cognitive abilities of those who work there. In fact, and that includes myself, many of us find happiness and relaxation at the much greater elevations of the 54 mountains in the state that exceed 14,000 ft (4267 m), where thin air is most definitely a thing. If you asked these people, they will probably say that their research productivity is far more affected by the happiness that comes from living in a beautiful part of the country than by whatever thin air we breathe.

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    Don’t forget about Sandia and Los Alamos, at similar (Sandia) or higher (Los Alamos) elevations…
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Jul 4, 2021 at 15:06
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    Boulder, CO, also hosts some of the labs of NIST, which is one of the major research institutes in the US. Commented Jul 4, 2021 at 16:16
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The effects of being at a high altitude can be simulated at low elevations using an altitude tent. I believe this is used for training purposes by athletes. I once saw an interview with David Blaine, who explained that he slept in such a tent every night for six months as part of his preparation for his (at the time) world-record-breaking stunt of holding his breath for around 17 minutes.

The effects on the brain of doing research at a low elevation can also be very easily reproduced by breathing a mixture of gases with a higher concentration of oxygen, eg, nitrox, or even pure oxygen, which would be the atmospheric air equivalent of a (hypothetical) elevation of many thousands of feet under sea level. During a sports event this is impossible to do, but for research, who would stop you if you wanted to do it?

From this I conclude that if breathing more/less oxygen was known to be “performance enhancing” for research and other mental activities, we would actually be hearing people talking about obtaining some oxygen for regular home/office use, and/or buying altitude tents. I have not heard such talk, but maybe that means that I just mingle with the wrong crowd and need to get out more. Related ideas do seem to exist, though they are pretty fringe and seem to appeal mostly to “alternative facts”-oriented people.

Note: I do not endorse the breathing of exotic gas mixtures without the necessary technical and medical knowledge. Breathing pure oxygen for extended periods will cause oxygen toxicity and is extremely harmful, and there are some safety issues with storing the oxygen and handling it safely.

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