By Emily Anthes, published on March 1, 2010 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
This year, six volunteers will step into an isolation tank in Moscow. The door will shut. And it won't open again for at least 520 days. During that time—designed to simulate the lengthy trip to Mars—the volunteers will eat, sleep, work, exercise, and socialize in cramped modules, utterly sealed off from the rest of humanity. They will communicate with the outside world via e-mail and radio only, draw from a limited supply of dehydrated food, make do without a single shower. Outside the tank, psychologists will be monitoring the participants' every move. What's happening to their moods? Are stress and exhaustion impairing their cognitive function? Is the group cohering or collapsing?
Social scientists are becoming increasingly interested in how the human psyche functions in extreme environments—studying people who spend their days in the vast emptiness of space or the endlessly dark and cold Antarctic winter, contending with all sorts of hazards.
"We're seeing people at the boundaries of what's possible for physical and psychological endurance," says Jason Kring, a psychologist at the University of Central Florida and president of the Society for Human Performance in Extreme Environments. "It allows us to see people living or working at the edge of existence."
This research naturally has profound implications for countries—including the U.S.—that are ramping up their plans for longer and more ambitious manned space flights. It's also yielding insights that could help keep soldiers sane or communities functioning in the aftermath of natural disasters. What's more, studies of extreme environments are also producing lessons that could help us all identify stresses, improve office life, and face our own earthbound challenges with more gusto.
In the summer, Antarctica is abuzz with activity. Scientists flock to the continent to study marine biology, geology, astronomy, and more. The days are full, with researchers taking advantage of the nonstop light.
Then people leave. Stations that house a thousand people in the summer see their populations drop to a few hundred. The temperature at the Pole plummets to a bone-rattling -74 degrees Fahrenheit, and the constant light is replaced by unending darkness. Air travel becomes impossible, and for the eight-month polar winter, no one can come to or leave the frozen continent.
That means no new supplies and no possibility of an evacuation in an emergency. (In 1999, a doctor working at the South Pole discovered a lump in her breast. She performed a biopsy on herself, enlisting the help of a welder she'd trained for the task. When the results were suspicious, she was forced to treat her own cancer until the weather changed.) Scientists spend most of the winter indoors, confined to the small research stations where they eat, work, and sleep.
"Although the environment outside is awesome and beautiful, after a while it gets a little monotonous, especially if you're looking at it only through the window," says Peter Suedfeld, a professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia who has studied the psychological effects of working in Antarctica and in space. "The food gets monotonous. The work gets monotonous."
It's enough to make someone crazy, and indeed it has. Explorer Frederick Cook wrote of the psychological struggles experienced by the members of his 1898-99 Antarctic expedition. "The curtain of blackness which has fallen over the outer world of icy desolation has descended upon the inner world of our souls," he wrote. Even though participants must undergo rigorous psychological screening, five percent still experience symptoms of a diagnosable psychiatric disorder, most commonly mood disorders.
Christian Otto, an emergency physician at the University of Ottawa, spent 370 straight days as the South Pole doctor. During his time there, he witnessed depression, anxiety, insomnia, and more. As the winter progressed he saw people withdraw into themselves, especially at mealtimes.
"The first month and a half, you'll go into the galley and there's a lot of camaraderie," Otto says. But a few months later, "it's completely barren. People come in, get their food, and go to their room. You see tension and irritability building."
Once, he came across a colleague suffering from what's known as "the polar stare." "I recall one individual who was having a complete out of body experience. Just staring off into space." Otto also vividly remembers a video chat he had with a friend back home. He remembers being struck by the wide smile on his friend's face. This "brightness," he says, "really contrasted with the mood of those in the station."
Given the connection between darkness and depression (psychologists have long known that insufficient sunlight can contribute to melancholy), it's not surprising that eight months without sunlight would influence mood. But work in the Antarctic has revealed another sanity saboteur: the cold. The thyroid gland, located in the neck, produces hormones that have a variety of functions, including regulating body temperature. During long-term exposure to cold, these hormones are so busy trying to keep the body warm that the brain, which also relies on these substances, gets shortchanged. "As a result, people begin to experience depression," says Lawrence Palinkas, professor of social work and anthropology at USC. "Cognitive functioning also suffers."
Temperature could be an oft overlooked component of winter depression, he says, even in places like Boston and Buffalo. "During winter, when people get depressed, we usually assume it's because of the dark. But it could also be because of the cold." Palinkas's work in Antarctica has shown that taking low doses of thyroid hormones can prevent people from getting depressed during the over-winter period. "It may be that someone in New England could do the same thing to boost their mood in the cold months," he says.
The experiences of the extreme-environment guinea pigs revealed other intriguing facts about mood—in particular, the surprisingly predictable ways in which it varies. Over the course of the eight-month Antarctic winter, mood starts high and ends high, but drops precipitously just after the halfway point. "One of the things that happens at midwinter is the realization that you're only halfway there," Palinkas says. "That will hit some people kind of hard. They begin to experience sleep problems, or get lonely for family and friends."
This phenomenon, known as "the third quarter effect," has also been observed in participants confined to space simulators here on Earth and seems to occur regardless of how long the mission lasts. It probably even happens in your own office. "We can apply some of the sociopsychological lessons that we're learning from space into work groups on Earth," says Nick Kanas, a psychiatrist at the University of California, San Francisco.
For instance, cosmonauts aboard the MIR space station have marked the halfway point with special food and messages from home, and in Antarctica, midwinter is traditionally celebrated with a huge celebratory meal. It starts with a cocktail hour, with the station managers acting as wine stewards. The dining room is transformed, with linens and decorations, and, although the cooks haven't had any new food or fresh produce available for weeks, they "pull out all the stops," says Otto, who ate beef Wellington and lobster at one of the midwinter meals he attended. Many scientists even make sure to bring a set of fancy clothes to the continent specifically for the dinner. "It has a pretty significant psychological impact," Otto says. "The station morale actually improves for several weeks after the midwinter meal. These sorts of events bring people together." Maybe a party marking the halfway point of a long-term project at your job could go a long way toward keeping spirits high.
When they're on missions, astronauts and polar scientists are wrenched out of their everyday social networks, and this separation from friends and loved ones can cause profound loneliness. (Imagine being Randolph Bresnik, a NASA astronaut who was in orbit around the Earth this past fall when his daughter was born.) But while they're missing home, there's another set of people they can't escape: their colleagues.
Research has consistently shown that interpersonal tension is the greatest stressor of living and working in Antarctica or space. A Russian cosmonaut reported that a full 30 percent of the time he spent aboard the MIR space station featured interpersonal conflict. There's no reprieve from strained relationships— breaks that in normal settings help people put negative feelings into perspective and regain appreciation for coworkers.
In the 1960s, a Soviet scientist in Antarctica had regularly played chess with a fellow crew member over some months. His opponent had a habit of pondering for a long time before making his moves—a mild annoyance for the scientist. But when the brutal winter took hold, that seemingly innocuous quirk sparked uncontrollable rage: When his opponent stared at the board for too long one day, the scientist stabbed him to death with an ice ax.
In 1996, FBI agents were dispatched to a U.S. station in Antarctica after a galley cook attacked several of his colleagues with a hammer. In a 110-day space simulation that began in 1999, two Russian volunteers got in a fight so brutal that it left blood spattered on the wall. And Canadian Judith Lapierre, the only woman on the seven-member team, was repeatedly sexually assaulted by the commander. Lapierre remained in the study—after being given a lock for her room—but another participant was so traumatized by these events that he quit.
Details on what exactly leads to these blows are sparse, but in her book The Human Experiment, Jane Poynter describes how stress, confinement, and exhaustion can turn molehills into mountains. Poynter was one of eight volunteers who spent two years living in Biosphere 2, a self-sustaining, hermetically sealed bubble in the Arizona desert. "The psychological pressures of being locked up, enclosed with only seven other people and few distractions, built to a boiling point," Poynter writes.
A series of small disagreements over the decisions being made by outside managers led the group of eight to split into two warring factions. And the feuding parties couldn't escape each other. "The four of Us would huddle at one end of the dining table for lunch, and the four of Them would either leave and eat elsewhere or crowd together at the other end of the table," Poynter writes. "One afternoon, Taber and I were walking along the hallway to the dining room. Gaie and Laser were walking towards us. As we passed them we hugged the wall, and averted our eyes. So did they. That was the way it was for the remaining fourteen months. We never looked each other in the face again."
Because of the high stakes, researchers have devoted considerable attention to figuring out how to construct ideal working teams. In the early days, missions to space and Antarctica were entirely male—and slightly out of control. "Expeditions of all men would turn into an Animal House-like environment," says Kring. "If one woman was part of the expedition, it would seem to have almost a civilizing effect on all the men. Often times men want to act nicer, act more appropriately when there's a woman around."
What's more, all-male teams tend to be highly competitive and emotionally closed off; women, however, are likely to bring cooperation and emotional support to a team. "Having men and women together leads to smoother functioning," says Kring. (Assuming, that is, that the participants manage to avoid sexual harassment.)
Today, space and the Antarctic also play host to people of multiple nationalities, a melting pot that creates obvious language and communication problems. "Heterogeneity creates some stress in the short term, but in the long term is an advantage," says Kanas. "You might find it interesting, if you're a male pilot, to talk to a female scientist about her experiences. Or to talk to a French crew member about wine. You enhance the possibility of discourse in a long mission."
Discovering how teams can make the most of their diversity has lessons that are particularly relevant in our globalized world, in which many of us have multinational colleagues and clients. Though a shared mission or project provides obvious common ground, heterogeneous groups may also benefit from having discussions that venture beyond the task at hand. For instance, discussing family life, say, or a shared passion for one of the many international iterations of Idol, can enhance bonding, morale, and mutual understanding.
Optimal team functioning also depends upon quality leadership—in particular, two entirely different kinds of leadership. Studies of teams working in extreme environments have revealed that at the beginning of a mission, it's important for leaders to be strong and task-oriented—to direct activity and communicate roles and responsibilities clearly. But as the mission continues, commanders should ease off, allowing their subordinates more autonomy and providing them with emotional and social support. Whether commanding a spaceship or a corporate committee, the best leaders can oscillate between these two styles, stepping up into a task role when things get hairy, then falling back into a support role once things are running smoothly again.
One of the most powerful lessons for the real world is that group functioning has profound effects on individual well-being. Palinkas has studied the shape of social networks in Antarctic stations. His astounding finding: Rates of depression were significantly higher in stations that had split into cliques or subgroups than in stations with one cohesive social group. "The sense of social connectedness can have a very important impact on how you feel about yourself," Palinkas says.
When the antarctic winter finally ends, most people are eager to fly home, away from the frozen tundra. But many of them volunteer for a repeat assignment. Psychologist John Nicoletti, who regularly ventures to Antarctica to evaluate and counsel the scientists there, says he sees people who go back again and again. "For some people, that's their whole world," he says. "Antarctica is their family."
For decades, scientists have focused on the stress and trauma inherent in extreme environments. But recent research has turned up evidence that spending time in such places can even have benefits. "What's more characteristic of these environments is not madness, but a sense of growth and recovery," Palinkas says. "We tended to find very positive, protective benefits in terms of their health and well-being."
For instance, one study compared members of the American Navy who wintered over in Antarctica with those who had volunteered for the assignment—and passed the screening test—but never ended up being deployed. The researchers discovered that the crewmen who'd spent eight months in the tundra were healthier and more successful, following their return, than their colleagues who never set foot there.
These effects relate to an idea that has been gaining currency among psychologists in recent years: post-traumatic growth. Scientists have found that those who survive war, violence, disasters, and other challenges can sometimes be changed for the better—emerging with an increased sense of self-esteem, self-awareness, and new values. Researchers have documented a similar phenomenon, termed "post-return growth," in those who intentionally seek out extreme and difficult environments. "You develop an increased sense of self-efficacy and you realize, If I could do this, I can do anything," Palinkas says.
Consider the responsibilities facing Otto during his year as a South Pole physician. On call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, Otto was a one-man hospital—acting as doctor, nurse, lab technician, psychiatrist, dentist, and physical therapist. He had to grapple with a month-long flu outbreak at the station as well as the worst trauma the Pole had seen in decades: One of the workers building a major piece of new scientific equipment was struck in the chest with a heavy cable and thrown 15 feet through the air. The injuries were serious—multiple fractured ribs, a collapsed lung, and internal bleeding. Otto had to activate the so-called walking blood bank, collecting whatever blood he could from the people who worked there. (Theman survived.)
These trials stretched Otto's professional capabilities, and being part of a team accomplishing extraordinary things under extraordinary circumstances was immensely satisfying, he says. "I love the challenge of these environments," Otto says. "My time at the South Pole was one of the most rewarding experiences in my life."
People return from these environments filled with awe and wonder at the natural world as well as a new perspective on their place in it. "They're more concerned about the environment, peace, humanity as a whole," Suedfeld says.
Astronauts, in particular, report being profoundly changed by seeing the planet from afar. "Many say they suddenly realized how silly it is for us all to be fighting on this big green Earth." For those of us without the opportunity to soar into space or winter over in Antarctica, a variety of challenging leisure activities—from mountain climbing to parasailing—can have similar benefits, Suedfeld says, building self-confidence, and providing new ways of viewing the natural world.
There might even be a positive side to the monotony that characterizes space shuttles, submarines, and even the vast Antarctic. The scenery doesn't change much, there's little daily variety, and even stimuli we often take for granted in our daily lives—such as outdoor smells—are profoundly limited. "Everywhere you look, you can see to the horizon and there's no change in the terrain whatsoever," says Otto. "It's a profoundly sensory-depriving environment."
Suedfeld has run experiments in his lab that simulate this kind of sensory reduction. The most common method involves putting volunteers in a dark, sound-reduced tank of water. The water is kept at room temperature and contains dissolved Epsom salts, which means that participants automatically float. The floating eliminates not only most tactile sensations but also the sensation of gravity, simulating weightlessness. "Most people find it very pleasant, very relaxing," Suedfeld says.
His studies, and others, have shown that escape from sensory noise can alleviate stress, anxiety, and pain and improve memory, sleep quality, and mood. People report having vivid visualizations, flashes of insight, and feelings of utter joy while in the tank. Studies have even shown that time in these kinds of chambers can also help people quit smoking, reduce drinking, curb overeating, and boost athletic performance. (Patients who want to quit smoking listen to smoking cessation tapes while inside. Athletes are asked to mentally rehearse aspects of their game—free throws, for instance, or tennis serves.)
The theory is that these chambers work because they drastically lessen the amount of work the mind has to do, reducing arousal and promoting deep relaxation. "We had a Zen master in the tank once," Suedfeld says. "He meditates three to four times every day, and he came out and said only once or twice a year does he reach as deep a state of meditation as he did in the tank."
The Zen master's revelation underscores the one extreme element of our otherwise non-extreme environments: We are constantly bombarded with stimulation—from various media, noise pollution, other people's requests. "Very rarely do we get to isolate ourselves from the overload," Suedfeld says. It almost makes 520 days in that Russian isolation tank sound like a luxury vacation.