Space psychology is an extremely significant area of study. Combining insights from all areas of the wider field (i.e., organizational, industrial, cognitive, psychiatry), it aims to optimise human behaviour and cognition in space.
In terms of its history, space psychology has received varying degrees of attention over time. Whilst its importance was acknowledged at the inception of NASA in 1958; in the early 1990s Dr Patricia Santy (a NASA flight surgeon and psychiatrist) illustrated the industry’s relative disregard for the area, claiming that the application of psychology to space was running 20-30 years behind most other areas of medicine. However, with ever-increasing pressure from academics (i.e., the Committee on Space Biology and Medicine), the establishment of continuously inhabited long-term research stations with multinational crews (i.e., with astronauts joining cosmonauts on Mir in 1993, and the first stay on the ISS in 2000), and a number of high-profile incidents, for example, the theorised termination of the Soviet Soyuz T14-Salyut 7 mission due to depression and the attempted murder by astronaunt Lisa Nowak, the relevance of psychological issues has become increasingly pertinent.
Research within the field is predominantly focused on ensuring selection/training programmes prepare astronauts for the psychological demands of space travel, developing effective inflight support strategies and helping individuals re-adapt following their return to Earth. Studies can be conducted both in-orbit, and in terrestrial simulators and space analogs (i.e., undersea vessels and polar outposts), which attempt to produce a degree of environmental realism, and have aided in identifying the consequences of the intrapsychic/interpersonal stressors that astronauts encounter, such as team conflict, impaired communication/”psychological closing”, social isolation, threat of disaster, high-stakes/demanding work, public scrutiny, microgravity, radiation exposure, immobility etc... Such research findings can then be applied to develop models of successful crew performance (i.e., in terms of gender composition, and types of goals) and produce effective intervention strategies, like enhancement medications and therapeutic software. For instance, optical computer recognition scanners have been developed by NASA to track astronaut facial expressions and assess potential changes in their mood, allowing for personalized intervention strategies (i.e. computerized CBT treatment). Notably, whilst much research focuses on studying/overcoming the negative aspects of space travel, a robust finding is the salutogenic “overview effect” (White, 1987), which refers to how viewing the Earth from space fosters a sense of appreciation/wonder, spirituality and unity amongst crew members. It is theorised by Yaden et al. (2016) that this emotional reaction is a result of the juxtaposition between the Earth’s features and the black backdrop of space, which emphasises the beauty, vitality, and fragility of Earth.
With forecasted missions focusing on the potential for interplanetary (and eventually interstellar) travel, we need to prepare accordingly. Not only will these missions be much more protracted in terms of their distance/duration (with the longest period spent in space currently standing at 14 months, and a round trip to Mars predicted to take 2.5 years), they will also be subject to the pressure of larger, multinational crews, with no hope of evacuation, lack of protection from the Earth’s magnetic field, and distance-related communication delays (averaging 25 minutes to Mars/500 minutes to Neptune and back). Additionally, astronauts will not be able to observe the Earth and derive the aforementioned associated benefits of this experience; coined the ‘Earth-out-of-view phenomenon’ (Kanas, 2015; Kanas & Manzey, 2008), which may magnify potential feelings of homesickness and isolation. As such, we need to develop effective strategies to counteract these novel stressors, with researchers considering the benefit of fitting protective outer shields to isolated parts of spaceships (where astronauts spend the majority of their time) in order to mitigate against the effect of radiation from cosmic rays, email messages that conclude with suggested responses in order to reduce communication times, and virtual reality systems/on-board telescopes to minimise feelings of separation from Earth.
Having discussed the historical development of space psychology, the scope of research conducted, and the forecasted future of the field, I hope I have impressed on you the significance of such an exciting area of study. Managing human behaviour in space is an interdisciplinary effort, and as the government monopoly on spaceflight diminishes (i.e., with the launch of commercial/private space ventures like SpaceX), and the number/complexity of missions increases, the importance of space psychology will become ever more apparent.
Blog written by Joaquim Ignácio S da Mota Neto, MD, MSc - Psychiatrist, Federal University of Pelotas, Brazil
Apparently, those weird green creatures who live on distant planets and who whizz across outer space, as seen in even weirder old sci-fi movies, are getting ready to be replaced by the very well known shape of human travellers!
Among the many issues concerning human beings becoming extraterrestrials, either permanently or for short periods of time, are those concerning mental health. What happens to our minds in a situation like that? Is the human brain mouldable or adaptable enough to avoid an emotional crisis during such a challenging experience?
Emotions and reactions to the environment are an inexorable part of human life - anxiety, fear, sadness, aggression, a wish to die, and so on. Most of these are quite usually seen as psychological or psychiatric features related to the common diagnosis of mental illnesses, such as panic disorder, major depression, psychosis or phobias. More than just feelings emerging from the latent, smouldering traits of someone's personality, they represent the way many portions of the cerebral cells and their connections are behaving in a particular period of time.
Depression is a disease that affects about 120 million people worldwide and is the leading cause of disability, according to World Health Organization. If we take this disorder as an example of a possible disruptive situation to be coped with during a space mission, we can understand the reasons why neuroscience is a very important medical field to be explored and to be put into perspective if trips like those to Mars are on the menu in the near future. Depression used to be described as the loss of the main appetites, i.e., a loss of appetite for work, food, sex, and for life itself. Perhaps more so than the feelings of sadness and hopelessness, the main real problems for depressed people are the lack of energy and decreased sense of interest or pleasure. There is also a huge impact on cognitive aspects, such as attention and memory, which reduces the ability of a person to accomplish minimal daily tasks, when mixed with insomnia, fatigue and psychomotor retardation. An affective disorder has biological and psychological triggers and it is obvious that while traveling or even living in space, the human body and all its organs, including the brain, must face troublesome phenomena, such as microgravity and cosmic radiation, not to mention the isolation and implicit fearful idea of a possible off-Earth death. Separately or together, and alongside genetic predisposition, these facts can represent the causes of mild or severe depression among crew members or civilians engaged in a space mission, besides eventually interfering in responses to treatment.
"It is a little bit surreal to know that you are in your own little spaceship, and a few inches from you is instant death." NASA Astronaut Scott Kelly, 2016
Hundreds of experts and researchers have been trying to delineate all the important medical knowledge required in order to guarantee the success of space projects. It is also crucial to take into account that mental illnesses are able to jeopardise human lives and societies on any planet, regardless of whether that planet is blue or red.
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