Humans evolved to survive and thrive as social creatures. Meaning, dynamic cooperation and connection to others are fundamental to our existence as a species.
And yet, or perhaps because of it, some insist on pushing the boundaries of human isolation. They voluntarily submit themselves to extreme environments and conditions to test what the human body and mind can endure.
Living in social isolation
For the past century, scientists have monitored human subjects as they voluntarily isolated themselves in caves, in outer space, and even under the ocean for months at a time. In extreme scenarios, scientists have even tested the limits on themselves.
While some of the later experiments would likely be deemed unethical (or denied funding) in today’s world, individual athletes and researchers continue to advance this daunting field in extraordinary ways.
100 days under the ocean
Since March 1 this year, an associate professor at the University of South Florida has been teaching all of his classes online – while living alone 20 feet under the ocean in Key Largo, Florida.
Exceeding 73 days of confined isolation earlier this month, Joseph Dituri, aka “Dr. Deep Sea,” set a new world record for the longest continuous underwater life in a fixed environment.
He plans to continue until June 9 to complete a 100-day stay inside Jules’ Underwater Lodge. (The former underwater research lab is now a 100-square-foot recreational destination and one room to rent overnight accessible only by diving.)
As a researcher in hyperbaric medicine, Dituri documents this scientific expedition with a support team under the name Project Neptune 100.
Atmospheric pressure and health
One of the primary goals of the research is to assess the effects of long-term living under extreme atmospheric pressure and confinement, which can be applied to space missions as well as water exploration.
Research to date in this area is quite limited. Beyond the risks of decompression sicknessliving under the sea changes the partial pressure of oxygen in the human body.
Technical saturation divers, who work on pipelines or other commercial infrastructure up to 1,000 feet deep, often spend weeks living in pressure chambers to adapt to the extreme environment. And even following the correct protocol, headaches, fatigue and other ailments occur regularly.
Learn more: Join a scientist’s underwater adventure
Possible risks and benefits of underwater life
Living underwater, even in a cabin or pod, can often cause superficial skin infections or rashes that become dangerous if left untreated.
Factors such as lack of sunlight, high humidity, and limited sanitation in the environment all pose challenges to long-term living. In Dituri’s case, doctors carried out a series of physical tests before he left for the lodge, visited him inside his pod while he was there, and will carry out further tests when he returns to compare the results.
So far, Dituri has reported to the washington post that he experiences more REM and deep sleep during rest and that his cholesterol and stress levels have dropped while deep living.
As a military veteran with a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering, Dituro is particularly interested in the potential benefits of pressurized environments for the treatment of traumatic brain injury – an emerging field of study with mixed results and some controversy.
Living underground in caves
On land, caves have a longer and more robust history of extreme trials of human isolation.
As early as 1938, Nathaniel Kleitman, a physiology researcher at the University of Chicago, and an assistant spent 32 days isolated in Mammoth cave in Kentucky. Their research regarding internal circadian rhythms and temperature cycles in the human body was later published in book form, sleep and wakefulness.
In a more extreme feat, French scientist Michel Siffre spent two months in 1962 in the isolation of a cave, without a clock, natural light or calendar.
He then led a series of similar experiences on other human subjects before devoting himself to a six-month stay in the cave in 1972. “I decided to live like an animal, without a watch, in the dark, without knowing the time”, he says . said Cabinet magazine in a 2008 interview.
Siffre’s research and fascination with the internal biological clock laid the foundation for the field of human chronobiology.
An Italian sociologist, Maurizio Montalbini, has also contributed extensively to this field.would have spent a cumulative two years and 18 months isolated in caves during its lifetime.
What does isolation do to a person?
Over the past few decades, hundreds of people have now isolated themselves in different caves or laboratory simulations (short and long term) for scientific evaluation.
This includes Spanish mountaineer and cave dweller Beatrice Flamini who exited last month from a record of 500 days isolation in a cave.
Similar to many test subjects before her, Flamini expressed disbelief that her target date had already arrived when researchers came to relieve her of her stay. She said it felt like time barely passed, as she was immersed in the dark, cohesive environment.
In some of Siffre’s experiments, he reported that test subjects naturally went through a 48-hour sleep-wake cycle, rather than the 24-hour solar period that governs most of our lives today. They would be active for about 30 hours, then sleep for 12 hours or more.
In one case, Siffre said, his team recorded a man sleeping for more than 33 hours continuously. Listening with a microphone, researchers began to fear the subject had died in isolation – then they finally heard him snoring.
Learn more: Why cave dwellers love isolation
Effects of isolation in caves
The mix of cave isolation studies has shed light on a range of unique physiological responses in humans.
These include increased heart rate, vitamin D deficiency, muscle damage and inflammatory responses as well as irregular menstrual cycles.
An experiment involving a 27-year-old woman stay 131 days in Carlsbad CavernsNew Mexico, also showed a significant drop in red and white blood cell counts upon entering isolation, and then a rapid recovery in those counts.
With all the findings, however, the gold standard of replicated results has been hard to come by, according to a comprehensive review of the research.
This leaves many unanswered questions about the universal effects of long-term isolation on the human body and mind.
Is the space lonely or peaceful?
The varied results also suggest that a wide range of personal variables could shape the experience depending on the individual involved. And even better, it’s hard to truly understand these experiences from an outside perspective.
An anecdotal example of this unfolded in 1969, when the world watched NASA astronaut Michael Collins orbiting the far side of the moon on the Apollo 11 mission – all alone while his two teammates descended on the lunar surface.
“Since Adam, no human has known such loneliness,” is how NASA described Collins’ unprecedented journey into isolation.
After returning, Collins described the trip as anything but isolating. “I was not alone. I had a happy little home in the command module,” Collins insisted in a 2019 panel interview, dismissing a narrative featured in numerous press headlines at the time. “Behind the moon, it was very peaceful.”
With space missions now aiming far beyond the moon – with humans likely to travel much longer distances in confined spaces – further research into isolation could make all the difference to the well-being of humans. future astronauts.
Learn more: The human body could survive a mission to Mars better than our minds