The Reason You Get Emotional Or Contemplative On Long Flights

27/11/2015 7:34 PM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
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Man sitting in passenger plane, looking through window, side view

You’re all set for the lengthy journey to the U.S or Europe.

On board the airplane you’ve enjoyed your compartmentalised meal, reclined your chair and now you’re settled in to watch a few films that, let’s face it, you’ve been wanting to see but were too embarrassed to catch at the cinema.

Half way though Marley and Me you find yourself weeping like a baby because you recall your neighbour's Labrador you hadn’t thought about since you were 12.

At the end of About Time your whole body is convulsing in between sobs as you vow to call our dad and tell him you love him, as soon as you can use your phone.

Or if films aren’t your thing, you pop the headset on and slink down in the chair to have a sneaky cry listening to the new Adele album.

Why do we get emotional, reflective or contemplative on flights?

“It’s a well described phenomena,” Professor Drew Dawson, Director of the Appleton Institute at Central Queensland University told The Huffington post Australia.

“I’ve never actually seen research on it but I have heard many people over many years discuss it anecdotally and I also have personal experience with it. I’ve heard so many people, particularly when the watch quite ordinary rom-com type films, say that they had these emotional responses that when they get back down to ground they think ‘what was that?’”

There may be a few contributing factors that explain why we feel sad, melancholy, reflective or even the need to make new resolutions while up in the air.

“I suspect oxygen deprivation may be a reason. The oxygen levels on a plane are equivalent to about 8,000 or 10,000 feet, and we do know that judgement is impaired as oxygen levels lower,” Dawson said.

“And I suspect people whose respiratory function is not quite perfect will probably have a little reduction in saturated oxygen levels in their blood stream and that could account for it. It’s only a hypothesis, I have no evidence to this. But it might explain it,”

Dawson also believes that being disconnected from the world electronically could account for the ‘still’ that allows these emotions and feelings to surface.

“Up until recently, before wi-fi was available, there were very few interruptions on airplanes,” Dawson said.

“There is a whole bunch of research coming out at the moment about that fact that people don’t have slow thoughts any more, on account of how busy we are and how much attention we devote to devices. The idea to actually follow a thought through and to actually follow a line of thinking long enough to have an emotion is a rapidly disappearing skill.

“My area of work is sleep and we find the same phenomena with people who find themselves waking between 3am and 6am. Their thoughts will be quite emotional and deep, and often more pessimistic than would normally be the case. Sometimes that’s thought to be related to the fact that their thoughts during the day haven’t been followed through,” Dawson said.

Airline Virgin Atlantic has gone so far as to offer ‘emotional health warnings’ before screening some movies. It has also been recorded that a sense of powerlessness or not being in control, as well as a lack of sleep may be contributing factors.

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