Antarctica has more in common with outer space than you think. Isolation and extreme conditions are just two of the challenges faced by people in these environments.
Peter Suedfeld, a professor emeritus at UBC’s department of psychology, has received funding from the Canadian Space Agency to study the psychological impact of isolation on astronauts and others living or working in remote locations. This research project also involves the European Space Agency and the British Antarctic Survey.
What does your project involve?
We’re studying people at two isolated research stations in Antarctica. One is run jointly by the Italian and French Antarctic agencies, and the other one is British. The subjects have a few tasks. They all read the same story out loud, which is recorded. They also keep a weekly recorded voice diary – what happened during the week, how they felt, and what they were thinking about. Once a week, if they agree, their dinner-table conversations will be recorded as well.
I will analyze the diaries’ content and score them for signs of stress. I also measure things like problem-solving strategies, group dynamics and moods. What particularly interests me is resilience and post-experience growth – that is, coping and the positive effects of being in challenging situations.
How does research conducted in the Antarctic relate to space travel?
Antarctic stations have many similarities to a space station, and to eventual long-distance space trips to Mars and elsewhere. In both cases, you’re away from home for a long time, and you’re in a small capsule within a very strange and potentially lethal natural environment, which people are not evolved to live in. Neither space nor Antarctica has ever had a permanent human population. There’s very little in the way of other life forms around.
You can’t step outside without wearing elaborate life-support clothing and equipment, so you’re quite confined. Communication with home is restricted. Whatever you want, you have to take with you. Both the physical and the social environment are relatively unchanging and low in stimulation.
Aside from astronauts, who else can benefit from this research?
First of all, there are people in environments that share similarities with space. For example, there’s an underwater research laboratory off of Florida that houses “aquanauts” in a little capsule. And there are a number of places with encampments that are similar to Mars – in Hawaii, the Canadian High Arctic, the Utah desert and elsewhere.
People also live in remote, isolated communities: logging, mining and fishing camps, small hamlets in the far north and so on. These can be very harsh environments that require special skills and a special psychological makeup.
Recently, it’s been recognized that people living in old age homes, or older people in their own home, share many experiences with these other groups. They’re isolated, they’re confined, they can’t move around well because they don’t have the physical ability. Sometimes they have vision or cardiovascular problems. And so they share some of the problems that astronauts and Antarctic winterers may face.
How does your work help address these situations?
If we can develop a non-intrusive, objective measure of stress, then it is important to follow up with the subjects themselves so they can do something to reduce their stress.
I also want to draw the attention of those running the show – whether that’s at NASA, the CSA, nursing homes or the companies that run isolated work camps. I’d like to update them on their people who are having problems. Then they can monitor a problem, and if it reaches a certain threshold, step in and do something – relieve the stress, take their people out on excursions, or make their inside environment more pleasant or varied.