Hello and welcome once again to the slow mental decay of South Pole researcher, Chris Bero," begins a 1996 journal entry. "Last weekend we all had to think of a disease to dress up as for the Bio-Med Death and Dying party. I went as scurvy and Seasonal Affective Disorder. . . . Oh man, this place is starting to get to me."

Bero, an astronomy researcher for the University of Chicago, spent a winter in Antarctica with a group of 27 other scientists and support personnel for the six-month-long night. Some moments were better than living a beer commercial, he wrote. Other times he said he was depressed, plagued by "disturbingly gruesome nightmares" or insomnia, or sapped by the absence of sunlight.

According to researchers who study such environments, Bero’s reactions to the lengthy interlude in the isolated and confined station were typical. The implications of their work stretch far beyond the polar circles, however–as far, in fact, as humans dare to go. Psychologists use the close quarters in Antarctica as a model for life in space, an even more extreme environment than the coldest, windiest, highest, and driest continent on earth. They hope to glean secrets of how people cope there under such trying conditions and apply the lessons to future long-duration space missions.

That future is not far off. In October 2000, the first crew is scheduled to alight on the International Space Station. An architectural firm boasts it will open a space resort in 2017. Even campaigns to colonize Mars and the moon are gaining steam.

With all this interest in space, but relatively little experience with long-duration missions, researchers have studied several Earth environments that resemble their vision of what life in space will be like. To greater or lesser extents, these environments share the qualities of both isolation from the outside world and confinement in a relatively small space. Some of these so-called space-analog environments include polar stations,submarines, underwater habitats, remote national parks, and oil rigs.

Jack Stuster, an anthropologist at Anacapa Sciences, a behavioral science research firm, categorized these environments by their similarity to 90-day space missions. Using such factors as group size, tour length, and hostility of the outside environment as gauges, Stuster ranked the South Pole Station sixth in a list of 13 analogs.

But for longer missions, such as a year-long stay at the moon or a three-year trip to Mars, Stuster believes Antarctic bases, such as the South Pole Station, win out. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) seem to agree. They have planned to build outposts in Antarctica to test the equipment they hope to take to Mars and the moon.

Until this is done, researchers can study life in existing Antarctic bases. A fair bit of behavioral research has already been done there, triggered by the unexpected and dangerous onset of schizophrenia in a construction-crew member in 1957. Other crew members built a special room for this man and lined it with mattresses, and the man spent most of the winter under sedation.

Because such incidents grow more deadly for the entire crew the farther it is from Earth and intervention, behavioral researchers need to understand the various human reactions to isolation and confinement to prevent these dangerous situations.

"That is precisely why Antarctic research is important now," says Lawrence Palinkas, a medical anthropologist at the University of California, San Diego. Encouragingly, he has actually found that the challenges of wintering in Antarctica seem to produce health benefits.  


While in Antarctica, though, it’s often hard to see any benefits. Seven months into his stay, Bero wrote a spoof on a travel guide to the South Pole, highlighting some of his frustrations:

For the younger crowd, no stay at South Pole would be complete without a winter-over. Nine whole months of complete freedom from the usual confines of the outside world and a night life that goes non-stop for six whole months. When tired of dancing and partying, the South Pole activities coordinator would be happy to show you the many areas to explore at Pole. You can watch several thousand videos. You can run on a treadmill, lift weights, play volley bag, slaughter your coworkers in a virtual reality DUKE NUKE’M 3D game, or you can just sit in the galley and watch the same people day in day out and estimate the rate of growth for their facial hair.

The people who go to Antarctica, aside from tourists who visit the coast, are scientists and support personnel from 29 countries. Four thousand stay in the summer, but only a quarter as many stay over the long winter, as "winter-overs." They live on bases as large as the U.S.-run McMurdo, which houses more than 1,800 people; at stations like South Pole, with about 30 people; or in field stations with only a few other crew members.

Winter-overs have to cope with separation from family and friends; the feeling of being "stuck" with people not of their own choosing; a lack of privacy and sensory stimulation; and the demands of a hostile environment: a harsh climate, high altitude, and extreme light-dark cycle.

These difficulties often cause depression, irritability, hostility, insomnia, and an inability to concentrate, cumulatively known as"Winter-Over Syndrome."

The symptoms ebb and flow over time. Psychologist J.H. Rohrer studied isolation in the 1960s and described three progressive stages of how people handle it. The first is high anxiety. This is followed by a spell of listlessness, when the crew becomes mired in routine. The final stage is characterized by anticipation of the return home, spiked with aggressiveness, emotional outbursts, and rowdy behavior. Interestingly, the stages appear regardless of the actual length of time in isolation–when people know how long they will be cut off from others, they spend equivalent amounts of time in the stages, whether the isolation period is 24 hours or one year.

Many researchers studying reactions to a winter in Antarctica have found similar swings in behavior and symptoms, with high levels of anxiety during the weeks before stations close, when everyone races to finish projects before summer personnel depart. Right after the last plane leaves for the season, the atmosphere at many stations is merry and a bit rebellious, with winter-overs bonding by doing things they would not have been allowed to do before.

By midwinter, the thrill of being left alone has waned and the monotony of work and life with the same people takes its toll: Boredom, fatigue, irritability, and sleep problems set in. Researchers have dubbed this the "third quarter phenomenon" because the symptoms often peak three-quarters through the isolation period. "It’s kind of like not leaving your house for a year," says Bero. "After awhile, so much of your environment is the same, it feels like parts of your brain shut down."

Finally, as the winter draws to a close, the pace speeds up in preparation for the next crew. When it arrives, the established winter-over group often reports a sense of invasion and resentment toward the newcomers.

Some of the winter-over symptoms seem to have a root in the special characteristics of polar regions. The 24 hours of winter darkness seem to confuse the body’s internal clock, or circadian rhythms, wreaking havoc with sleep. In a 1989 study by UC San Diego’s Palinkas, more than half of the winter-over crew complained of problems sleeping. Brain wave tracings have shown that stage IV sleep, one of two periods of restorative "deep sleep," in which brain activity slows down, totally disappears in winter-overs. Stage III, the other state of deep sleep, and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, during which the brain is very active and people dream, are also disturbed. Bero, who often had insomnia and nightmares, was sent to the station greenhouse to sit under full-spectrum lighting. After returning home, it takes some people as long as two years to fully recover their sleep.  

But some symptoms seem to stem from social, rather than physical, problems. "Long eye", or as one psychologist put it, a "12-foot stare in a 10-foot room," occurs in people who tend not to fit in. In an isolated and confined environment, identifying with the group plays an important role in the smooth social sailing of those trapped together. Other crew members usually give the starers a wide berth, and they, in turn, seem to be able to "snap out" of their faraway states at will, stopping the episodes when they feel more included in the group.In one seminal study on human behavior during an international Antarctic expedition in the austral summer of 1980-1981, nationality played a divisive role. Twelve scientists spent 72 days trekking over the continent, using each other as subjects for psychological and physiological studies on cold and isolation. While the quantitative data showed a "generally positive picture," according to one scientific paper, the "social climate was generally disagreeable." Some of the scientists threatened to sabotage others’ research, and three refused to participate in certain experiments. Some unpopular members of the team were shunned, and there were rifts along national lines.

Another disturbing winter-over phenomenon is that of plotting the death of another crew member–down to the last graphic detail. Researchers attribute the deadly daydreams to coping mechanisms, which defuse rising hostilities and help maintain a sense of control over a situation in which escape is not an option. Bero, who could not stand a fellow crew member who constantly put people down, relished his own detailed fantasy of spraying his tormentor with a supersoaker water gun filled with an acetate mixture that burns through clothing. Snowdrifts would cover the body, he envisioned, leaving no trace of the victim or the crime.

Some less morbid, but nonetheless bizarre, group activities also include speaking in a lisp, cursing liberally, and running to the ceremonial pole in the nude. Shortly after the base closed for the winter, Bero and his fellow winter-overs threw a beach party, complete with swimsuits and surf music. They also gave each other mohawks. These bonding activities serve two important purposes: They develop a spirit of community and solidarity, and they break the monotony of life on the base.

This identification with the group usually leads to resentment toward outsiders, whom many view as unable or unwilling to understand crew members’ needs. Bero said winter-overs grew closer over their shared contempt for one NSF official, and he suggested that the NSF, as a matter of policy, provide future crews with a scapegoat. Similar suggestions have been made for space: a bad movie could be included so that astronauts would have something to complain about.

Though homesickness and the separation from loved ones make living in Antarctica difficult, many winter-overs withdraw from the outside world. Psychiatrist Sidney Blair from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland, believes the sense of being unable to affect outside events makes many winter-overs reluctant to hear bad news from the outside. He points out that technologies like email and the telephone are a "mixed blessing," since communication between station crews and colleagues outside raises the issue of who is in charge. Nonetheless, communication with loved ones is important, says Bero, who occasionally spoke with his fiancée over a whistling, static-filled ham radio connection which was broadcast by shortwave to whomever could pick it up. The lack of privacy and the time lag made the conversations somewhat stilted, he recalls, though he still valued them.

While much of the early behavioral research in Antarctica focused on problems, recent research has discovered a silver lining to the winter-over experience. Some reactions, says Palinkas, actually help people cope with the isolation. Long eye, for example, distances people from unpleasant situations. Bero, who explained that almost everyone had it at some point, agrees.

Fortunately, the winter-over syndrome disappears after leaving Antarctica, although many people have trouble adjusting to "normal life" in the first six months home. Donna Oliver, a psychology researcher at the United States International University in San Diego, discovered that over the isolation period, the winter-overs in her study became less dependent and paranoid. At the same time, they got better at sharing their feelings and acting without a framework of rules. Almost all of the winter-overs described the experience as one of the best in their lives, and about half said they would want to do it again.

Physically, the intensity of the experience appears to be a boon. Palinkas found that upon their return, Navy winter-overs were admitted to hospitals 20 percent fewer times than a control group of Navy personnel. "The challenge may produce health benefits," he says. "They learn how to cope with adversity. It’s like, ‘If I can handle this, I can handle anything.’"

Much of the research has focused on how to select winter-overs who will best manage the challenges of the isolation, confinement, and environmental extremes. Antarctic pioneers of the past had to be young, fit men, who could follow orders and loved adventure.

Nowadays, while people often cite "adventure" as their main reason for wintering-over, psychologists frown on applicants who demand a lot from their environments to be satisfied. Instead, successful winter-overs are those who create a rich "perceptual environment," said Palinkas, much like that described by 1930s American expeditioner Admiral Richard Byrd in his book Alone:

Men are driven deeper and deeper inside themselves for materials of replenishment. . . . For there is no escape anywhere. You are hemmed in on every side by your own inadequacies and the crowding measures of your associates. The ones who survive with a measure of happiness are those who can live profoundly off of their intellectual resources, as hibernating animals live off their fat.

Today, prospective winter-overs at American bases must pass physical exams and an evaluation by a psychologist, as well as a psychological questionnaire. Evaluators look for three main qualities, according to A.J.W. Taylor, who has written a book on Antarctic psychology: ability, stability, and compatibility. Ability refers to a person’s job skills and motivation, stability to his or her level of self-awareness and emotional control, and compatibility to his or her social skills.  


The importance of compatibility is one of the main insights NASA has culled from the Antarctic research. Psychology and group dynamics have gained attention since seven American astronauts have each spent months on the Russian space station, Mir.

"You can tough it out in a tin can with two or five other people, but that ability to keep up a front eventually erodes over time," says Stuster.

Indeed, in a recent space station simulation, that front eroded three-quarters of the way through the 8-month study. Two "spacemen" in the simulation had a physical fight, and a Canadian woman said that she was sexually harassed by a Russian colleague when he tried to kiss her. A Japanese study participant asked for and received permission to leave the simulation after two months. The study continued, however, and the hatch, which had separated the two fighters since January 10, was opened in February, when a "visiting crew" arrived to relieve some of the tension.

These clashes, which occurred across cultures, are reminiscent of findings in Antarctica. And Nick Kanas, a psychiatrist at the University of California, San Francisco who studies astronauts and cosmonauts, says space crews tend to bond along national lines.

One Czech cosmonaut on Salyut 6, for example, described being excluded by his Russian colleagues, who swatted his hand away from controls. Simple language barriers can alienate crew members. So Kanas and Stuster suggest language training that includes not only technical jargon, but also the vocabulary of home and hobbies. That would make it easier for crew members to get to know each other on a personal level.

Of course, cultural differences do not necessarily imply conflict. Astronaut Shannon Lucid doesn’t know why she and her two Russian comrades got along so well, but she recognizes the value of compatibility. "The number one important thing on a space station is the group of people that will work together," she said in her October 1996 post-flight press conference. "Everything else is secondary."

Another group behavior seen in both Antarctica and space is the tendency to vent anger at outsiders. In times of high stress on board, such as during a crisis or when spacefarers feel hostility toward a fellow crew member, they focus that aggression outward to mission control, reports Kanas. Mission-control members, in turn, "displace" their frustration out to the next level, management. Albert Harrison, a psychologist at the University of California, Davis, says the reason is the same in both Antarctica and space. "By directing hostility to the outside," he says, "you avoid blaming each other and you even build some solidarity." Once NASA clued in to the importance of "human factors," its engineers wanted to know which problems took precedence in order to design more user-friendly environments. So Stuster and two experts in Antarctic psychology analyzed more than 1800 diary entries from nine crew members in the French Antarctic program.

"If you accept the assumption that the more somebody writes about something, the more important it is to them, then all you have to do is count the diary entries for different categories," says Stuster. "And doggonit, there are almost twice the number of diary entries concerning group interaction than the second most salient category, which is outside communication. That pretty much supports what behavioral scientists would have guessed all along."

Armed with this knowledge, Stuster is now lecturing to astronauts who will spend time in space. "Just telling people about the bizarre things that can happen in isolation and confinement prepares them in a fundamental way to recognize the phenomena when they occur," says Stuster, listing the typical stresses. "You’re going to have problems communicating with the outside world, you’re going to read things into messages that aren’t really there, you’ll become hypersensitive and trivial issues will be exaggerated. . . ."

NASA officials are designing the International Space Station with some of these issues in mind. The organization enlisted the aid of four architects to create a homier atmosphere. They’ve come up with small, soundproof roomlets that fit along the walls of the shuttle and can be disassembled quickly in an emergency. These would provide the privacy so often necessary for people confined together. And the astronauts could personalize their small spaces by plastering them with posters or family photographs. They would also be able to communicate with loved ones on closed Internet connections and video linkups.

Shorter missions are similar to the summer season in Antarctica: There is usually so much work to do that crew members do not have much time to rest or recuperate. In one extreme example of this, a Skylab crew was so overworked that crew members staged a one-day work protest, taking their first day off in several weeks. But much of the time in space, particularly in long-duration missions, is free.

"On a mission to Mars," says Stuster, "there will be lots of time for people to get bored. This has been known to ship’s captains for centuries. They have to keep the crew busy with meaningful work, and keep them well-fed and entertained."

Also, just as in Antarctica, people’s body clocks will be confused by the difference in light cycles. Spacefarers with skewed sleep patterns could make more mistakes in their work. Cosmonaut Valentin Lebedev, for example, took 50 photographs of a closed porthole before he realized his mistake. To prevent these and more dangerous blunders, Stuster argues for zeitgebers (time givers). They would regularly punctuate stretches of time with activities, such as meals, and lights that dim and brighten on a regular schedule. "On a longer scale, celebrations help mark the passage of time and help to remind the personnel that they’re making progress toward an ultimate goal." Perhaps future spacefarers will dress up as microgravity-induced illnesses for Death and Dying Parties in space.

And while they’re celebrating, they might just look out a porthole in their swanky new spaceships, and give thanks to the pioneers of a large, gleaming white continent on Earth.



WRITER Maggie McKee
B.A., physics, Grinnell College, Iowa.
Internship: Harvard Medical School, Boston.
ILLUSTRATOR Janice Bridgman
B.A., Art, San Jose State College; M.A., Art, San Jose State University
Internship: Monterey Bay Aquarium

Text © 2000 Maggie McKee
Illustrations © 2000 Janice Bridgman