The Stark Isolation of Space cannot be Matched on Earth. But one Place Comes Close

The Stark Isolation of Space cannot be Matched on Earth

Space and humans are not a great mix. Scientists are constantly discovering new types of space-related health risks, related to how factors like micro gravity and cosmic radiation affect our bones and organs, and beyond.

But prolonged exposure to the space environment isn’t the only concern for our bodies. What about our minds?

The psychological effects of extreme isolation and confinement during long-duration space travel and missions to other planets still represent a major unknown.

If we’re ever going to successfully travel through space and even colonize other worlds, we need to understand a lot about what it’s like to be stuck in unforgiving places for long periods of time. What happens, while far from home.

As it happens, these hostile habitats have a scientific name: isolated, confined, extreme (ICE) environments; There is even a field of research in which scientists investigate the psychological effects of living in conditions similar to long space travel.

Of all the places on Earth to conduct such experiments, one stands out.

“Antarctica is considered an ideal analog for space because its extreme environment is characterized by multiple stressors that reflect those of long-term space exploration,” researchers led by psychologist Candace Alfano from the University of Houston. explained in 2021 by a team of the study

“In addition to small crews and limited communications during the Antarctic winter months, the environment offers little sensory stimulation, and long periods of darkness and harsh weather conditions limit outdoor activities. Evacuation is difficult, if not impossible.”

The Stark Isolation of Space cannot be Matched on Earth
The Stark Isolation of Space cannot be Matched on Earth

In the research, Alfano and his team took advantage of the inherent difficulties of Antarctica’s harsh conditions, monitoring the psychological health and development of personnel living and working at two remote Antarctic research stations over a nine-month study period.

Psychologists developed a monthly self-report tool called the Mental Health Checklist, designed to measure emotional states and mental health, including positive adaptation (feelings of control and motivation), poor self-regulation (feelings of restlessness, inattention, and fatigue). and obsessive-compulsive disorder (anxiety about feelings and obsessions).

Furthermore, actual side effects of sickness experienced by staff were checked and evaluated, and spit tests were gathered to survey cortisol levels as a biomarker of stress.

Ultimately, the results showed that participants’ positive adaptation decreased during the Antarctic posting, while poor self-regulation of emotions increased.

“We observed significant changes in psychological functioning, but the patterns of change were different for specific aspects of mental health,” Alfano said.

“The main changes were seen for positive feelings as we saw a consistent decay from the very outset to the furthest limit of the mission, without any proof of a ‘return impact’ as members arranged to get back.”

According to the researchers, much previous research in this area has focused on negative emotional states induced by isolated, confined, and extreme environmental conditions.

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But it is possible that we are missing another problem at the same time. A reduction in positive feelings during prolonged stays in difficult places appears to be an almost universal response to ICE situations, whereas changes in levels of negative feelings vary more between individuals.

“Positive emotions such as contentment, excitement and fear are essential traits to thrive in high-pressure settings,” Alfano said.

“Mediations and countermeasures pointed toward improving positive feelings, accordingly, might be significant in decreasing mental gamble in outrageous conditions.”