Antarctica Residents Reveal Psychological Toll Mars Colonists Will Face

To survive the bleak winter, they must shut down.

At the Concordia research base in Antartica, winter is a trying time that tests the mettle of even the most seasoned explorers. It’s bleak, dark, and miserable — exactly how it’ll be on Mars for future humans who decide to venture there. And that’s why administrators at the European Space Agency, who call Concordia “the remotest base on Earth,” recently funded research on the mental health of the people who live there. They can handle the bewildering emptiness, but doing so comes at a cost.

The new paper, published in Frontiers in Psychology, describes the psychological phenomenon faced by scientists who “winter-over.” When winter arrives in Antarctica, the sun goes down for months, and temperatures can drop to negative 80 degrees Celsius, making venturing outside dangerous and resupply missions impossible. The already-limited social life on the pole fades away, taking a drastic toll on the scientists. But as the study authors discovered, the human brain has its own extreme coping mechanisms.

"“Antartica, and particularly Concordia where we did this research, are probably about as close as you can get to being on another planet when you’re on Earth."

“Antartica, and particularly Concordia where we did this research, are probably about as close as you can get to being on another planet when you’re on Earth,” study co-author Nathan Smith, Ph.D. tells Inverse. Smith is an honorary lecturer at the University of Exeter Medical School and head of the Expedition Psychology Project.” The people who work in space environments say we can use these analog environments that can maybe teach us something about the things we might face.”

Winter in Antarctica, he says, is similar to what an extended spaceflight toward Mars will be like. There will be no regular sunlight, the external environment will be completely hostile, and there will be long periods of monotony as the shuttle hurdles through space. Researchers at Concordia tend to agree: They lovingly call the base “White Mars.”

Concordia research base is so isolated it's been nicknamed "White Mars."


The Worst Part of Long-Duration Spaceflight

Antarctic research bases are really good at simulating one of the most important psychological issues that arise in extended space missions, says psychologist Peter Suedfeld, Ph.D., a professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia who has chaired both the Canadian Antarctic Research Program and the Life Sciences Advisory Committee of the Canadian Space Agency. Namely, boredom.

Right now, when we send people to space, they don’t actually have a ton of time to be bored, Suedfeld tells Inverse. Astronauts at the International Space Station are busy receiving shipments of human teeth from SpaceX or testing robotic assistants. But when we go to Mars, that will all change.

“What’s going to happen when we go to Mars is quite conceivably going to be very different because if you’re talking about a trip that takes up to a year, even longer, there will be empty time,” he says. “Then the issue arises of: how do people function when you have a long period where much of it there are no compulsory tasks?”

The Concordia research base.


So, to approximate the mental toll of long-term spaceflight, University of Bergen psychologist Gro Mjeldheim Sandal, Ph.D., worked with Smith to investigate how 27 scientists fared psychologically when confined to the base during the Antarctic winter. They discovered that people who spent enough time at Concordia eventually enter a state of “psychological hibernation.”

Coping With the Uncontrollable

Sandal, Smith, and their other colleagues noticed this trend after collecting sleep quality diary entries and emotional health questionnaires from two groups of Antarctic researchers living at Concordia in two separate groups for about ten months at a time. Between May and September, the data showed a drop in activities like active problem solving and comforting cognitions that the participants usually used to help themselves cope with the boredom and isolation. The brain seems to shut down — and that in itself is a coping mechanism.

“Especially in that dark period when it gets really tough we think people kind of relinquish efforts to cope and sort of go into this low-energy state which is reflected by all the coping strategies drop[ping] off,” says Smith. “People have this apathy with trying to cope, but then that rebounds when the sun comes back.”

Concordia is the remotest base on Earth. 

Wikimedia Commons 

These symptoms have been observed before, says Sandal, but it’s been characterized as a condition called the “Antarctic stare” — a cognitive fog and depressive state that can overwhelm Antarctic explorers. In this paper, however, the team argues that the Antarctic stare is a state of absent-mindedness or low energy that is itself a coping mechanism. These symptoms, she says, represent a need to psychologically detach from the stressful situation.

“Earlier researchers have thought that it was kind of reflecting a depressive state. But our research findings suggest that this is actually not the case,” says Sandal. “Hibernation could be an adaptive mechanism where people psychologically detach from the situation and the environment.”

Characterizing this subtle difference could help space agencies come up with activities to help people detach without slipping into a depressive state. In the paper, the authors note that “yoga, meditation and self-hypnosis” might be potential options, though their effects haven’t been extensively studied in harsh environments.

But for anyone looking to test the best ways to psychologically detach, there’s no better place than Concordia, where the conditions are so extreme it might as well be another planet.

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