July 25, 2007
Psychological Problems On Polar Teams Problematic For Space Exploration

A substantial portion of the people who spend long periods of time at the poles suffer serious psychological problems.

While some people on polar expeditions savor a gratifying sense of achievement, the researchers said, 40 to 60 percent of them may suffer negative effects like depression, sleep disruption, anger, irritability and conflict with co-workers.

About 5 percent of these people endure psychological disturbances severe enough to merit treatment with medication or therapy, the researchers said.

"Polar madness can take a variety of shapes," Lawrence Palinkas, a University of Southern California anthropologist who wrote the paper in the Lancet medical journal along with Peter Suedfeld of the University of British Columbia in Canada, said in a telephone interview.

I'm thinking that genetic screening could serve a useful purpose in selecting crews for moon and Mars bases. Suggestion for NASA and the US National Science Foundation: Collect DNA samples from everyone who goes to spend years down in Antarctica and record how each person does. Then look for genetic variations that predispose people to do well or poorly in isolated and extreme conditions.

The US Navy could conduct a similar research effort on the genetics and psychological adjustment of submarine crews. Also, functional magnetic resonance imaging and other measures of cognition could provide patterns to look for that distinguish those who will do well or poorly in isolated conditions.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2007 July 25 10:00 PM  Space Exploration

Brock said at July 26, 2007 6:19 PM:

"I'm thinking that genetic screening could serve a useful purpose in selecting crews for moon and Mars bases."

No offense, but that's just about the dumbest thing I've seen you say on this site.

Firstly, your laser-like focus on genetic causality blinds you to just how similar we are (as humans) in most respects. Especially in mental matters, the incredible plasticity of the brain means that training and practice will far and away be a much more decisive factor in mental performance in these situations.

Secondly, you're focus on genetic screening is incredibly inefficient. Even where a genetic factor is relevant, you could (theoretically) ban someone from space work whose "genetic unsuitedness" could be addressed with 20 mg of Prozac. If this theoretical Prozac patient has useful and hard to replace skills (e.g., spacewalk construction experience), you're far better sending him and a bottle of pills than some ubermensch lacking in relevant skill sets.

Mood and psychic health are very susceptible to meditation, training, and consciously chosen "points of view." Where some see things that piss them off I can choose to observe challenges. Through training I can always "trick" myself into seeing the benefit of events, and their positive aspects. You might call this being a deliberate Pollyanna, but I call it "Choosing to be healthy." Why inflict yourself with clinical depression if you don't have to?

Mood and psychic health are also very susceptible to "brain hacks." A good example of this is how we have learned that exposing the optic nerve to full spectrum sunlight (even from an artificial source) for just 20 minutes/day will drastically improve mood and productivity. We will learn how to "hack" the human nervous system to overcome these hurdles. For all you know packing the pioneer's space suits with mint leaves and dendelion will alleviate the problem because their smell somehow resets a pathway in our brain. Or maybe they need to spend a 1/2 hour each day in the VR helmet and watch peaceful savanna scenes on the Nature channel. Or bring a cat to pet (a proven remedy for blood pressure and longevity).

When I see this story, I think "Good. We will learn about the difficulties of working on the Moon / Mars, and learn how to overcome them. We will learn how to train our brave explorers to avoid the psychic pitfalls of these endeavors, and we will learn how to build artificial habitats that support our mental health and encourage a positive and healthy outlook."

To quote the story directly:

"Some people may have difficulty adjusting to the light-dark cycles, and so they can never get a decent night sleep and experience a sleep disorder,"
Possible Solution: sleeping mask. I wear one myself to blot out the street lights outside my apartment.

"Some people just can't handle the confinement"
Possible Solution: 1 hour/ day in 3D virtual reality with long horizons to give the eyes a chance to focus at different distance.

"Some people just can't handle ... seeing the same people day in and day out for extended periods of time."
Possible Solution: watch morning news programs; Skype video chat; People magazine; etc.

"Say there's somebody you go to lunch with and you don't notice the way that they eat. But if you ate with that same person day in and day out for six months, suddenly the way they chew their food is enough to drive you crazy,"
Possible Solution: crew training to spot these problems and address them directly in a way that doesn't offend. The way Smith butters his toast is pissing you off? Teach him a new way (and he agrees to use the new way, in the spirit of helping a crewmate with his "crazy"), or ask for a shift change so you don't have to have breakfast with him for a week or two.

To me, this sounds like a non-serious piece of research being drummed up by even less serious journalists. It's a non-issue. One guy attacked another guy with a pipe? That happens ever day. That's like saying "Don't go to the grocery store, your car door might be dinged by a carelessly steered shopping cart." No duh, Sherlock. That's human nature. It happens in New York as often as Antarctica.

Gerald Hib bs said at July 28, 2007 8:07 AM:

Wow. The difference is that when a guy hits another guy in the head with a pipe on earth then the guy who gets hit is the only one who is hurt. Meanwhile in space things could go downhill much more quickly. Some suicidal person could do something relatively small in effort/complexity and kill everyone. A small crew can't afford to lose the skills of two people (the hitter and hittee.)

As to your getting upset over screening genetics: the more we learn about genetics the more we see just how much of human behavior stems from genetic roots. I, personally, have become much more compassionate about the reality of drug abuse, mental difficulties and even criminal tendencies as we see that some people are more or less programmed to have these problems. And those issues are just the tip of the iceberg as more and more data comes out. So, when you are looking at Mars mission which is multi year and there is just no way to simulate that except to do it, and the consequences of someone loosing their sh*t are so high, it would be irresponsible to not do everything possible to reduce the odds of someone going nuts. With billions of dollars and lots of lives at stake a little genetic screening seems to be in order IMHO.

Richard said at June 28, 2008 8:41 PM:

Brock to put it mildly has talked a load of rubbish. And his logic is seriously flawed. He implies that every case of depression or mental illness can be avoided by "training", which is patently wrong. As Gerald has pointed out you cannot afford to have people going berserk in space. Psychological and genetic screening is called for. Genetic screening may not all that fool-proof but it is getting more accurate by the day and it is the only scientific pointer we have towards susceptibility to mental instability and certainly more useful than the voodoo suggestions of Brock.

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