How does living in such a remote place affect you psychologically?
There are many important psychological factors associated with confinement, isolation and sensory deprivation.
One of my predecessors told me that “monotony” was the largest challenge from living in isolation at Concordia. I disagree. Like him, I have access to information – via the internet, telephone and the rest of the crew. In fact we are surrounded by information, compared to the heroic age of polar exploration. Life is not monotonous - there is huge potential to stimulate your mind – through hobbies, conversation and news from the outside world. However, as winter progresses, overwintering crew members regress further into their own rooms and minds, which can be dangerous- living in isolation and isolating yourself from your only access to human contact on the station.
Things are different. Your senses are not bombarded in the way they are at home and in the winter darkness, they become ‘blunted’, meaning any new sensory stimulation remains a luxury. We have an inventive chef - Giorgio Deidda - who continually strives to surprise us with new taste combinations. He is spending his 3rd winter at Concordia and surprises the crew with nationally themed evenings and his own trademarked dishes including digestifs such as his whiskey sorbet.
But ultimately life changes from being in 'technicolor' to black and white over winter. It’s almost as if our senses become under stimulated and wither in the darkness, ice and silence. So when a new stimuli comes along it can be disproportionately fascinating. It has been some time since I stubbed my toe walking around the station barefooted in the dark. But I can tell you it hurt each and every-time, even more. Also our reaction times have slowed down. Recently the wind caught a heavy door, slamming it into my face. I suffered moderate concussion for three days. In daylight with my normal senses back home, I know I would have stopped it first.
But perhaps the main factor is dealing with the degree of separation from our lives back home ‘on Earth’.
Could technology help overcome that isolation?
Surprisingly, I often envy the previous polar expeditions’ lack of communications. Nowadays, with heightened technological capability and wide satellite communications access for those overwintering in Antarctica, messages, problems and bad news are transmitted into our minds – whether it is a loved one passing away or salary difficulties. Such news is airdropped into the station by email, telephone, Facebook and video call, sometimes exploding like a bomb. There is no release - you are in a prison of your own mind here.
But being disconnected can bring new unexpected challenges. A fellow crew-member recently described to me how he “felt dead” and “not real”. Certainly depersonalization and “derealisation” have been recognized as features of significant psychological stress. He went on to say that when he went on Facebook it was as if his “previous life was continuing whilst his empty body continued on here in the Antarctic wasteland”.
How do you deal with the isolation?
A sense of camaraderie is crucial as well as regular hobbies. Reading and listening to music makes a huge impact. I recently rediscovered Jerry Lee Lewis – which when played after lunch, lifts peoples’ spirits more than any drug can, perhaps providing an element of ‘escapism’ from station life.