Antarctica isn’t for everyone. If we’re being honest, it’s not for humans at all.
People are social creatures, and living at a base at the bottom of the world doesn’t offer too many opportunities for interacting with others. Combine that with the near-constant darkness half the year, the isolation, and the confinement, and you’ve got a place that’s pretty hard on human psychology. To deal with it, a new study finds, scientists studying at the ends of the earth enter into a form of “psychological hibernation.”
A team of scientists studied researchers at Concordia Station, a French–Italian station known as the “remotest base on Earth,” according to the European Space Agency. The 16-person crew lacks sunlight for four months of the year. No transportation can get through in the rough winters. Amidst the largest desert in the world, chapped lips and cracked skin become the norm. During a Reddit AMA from 2015, scientists at the base describe it as a contained but friendly work environment. “Most of us are fairly busy here, and always have something to do,” they said, with an emphasis on regular gatherings and celebrating events.
The study, which examined change in sleep quality, emotions, and coping strategies over the course of two winters at the base, relied upon psychometric questionnaires to get answers for how the station charged researchers over their time there.
The researchers expected to find a mix of active and passive coping mechanisms. Active coping mechanisms include problem-solving or positive reinforcement. They’re what you expect to find in people at the beginning of a long mission. As the harsh winter rolls on and positive emotions decline, researchers expected that passive coping mechanisms, like denial or depression, would sink in.
What happened surprised them. As the winter went on, all coping mechanisms—active, passive, or otherwise—declined. Nathan Smith of Manchester University described it in a press statement:
“Our findings could reflect a form of psychological hibernation. Previous research has suggested that this is a protective mechanism against chronic stress, which makes sense—if conditions are uncontrollable, but you know that at some point in the future things will get better, you may choose to reduce coping efforts in order to preserve energy.”
Given its remote and hostile nature, living in Antarctica is sometimes seen as a prep work for eventually living on Mars. While the Red Planet has more dangers than anything on Earth (radiation, for one), the practiced isolation is still a good test run.
One lesson that could be taken from the Manchester study on sending scientists to faraway places: don’t skimp on living conditions. While this sort of extended emotional hibernation is generally seen as unsafe for humans, not having to worry about living conditions can lend themselves to the mindset of these scientists—totally focused on the mission at hand.
“Historically, this will have been dangerous,” Smith says. “While in this state you may be slow to react to changing conditions, which in extreme cold-weather environments could result in serious injury or death. However, Antarctic stations are much more habitable nowadays, and provide high levels of protection against the elements—so detaching from chronic stress as a coping mechanism could be effective.”
Source: University of Manchester