Humor and hallucinations: how space can mess with astronauts’ heads – 06/27/2021

In movies, the health of the body and mind is one of the last concerns of an astronaut on a space mission. Most of the time, technology has already solved the inconveniences caused by lack of gravity, confinement and travel time (which last for months). In real life, the scenario is quite different.

Over the decades, especially after man’s arrival on the Moon (in 1969), scientists have been studying the effects that astronauts’ exposure to an environment other than Earth—mostly gravity-free—can have on their bodies in the short and long term.

In the list of possible physical problems is loss of bone mass, change in vision, increased risk of heart attack, cancer and degenerative diseases.

But what about psychological changes? Thinking about the ambitious projects to “colonize” Mars, in a journey that would take months, what would it look like?

For researchers, hallucinations are the most common psychological symptoms. Depression and mood swings have also been detected on some missions.

In 1976, the Russian crew of the Soyuz-21 mission was brought back to Earth shortly after reporting a strange smell inside the Salyut-5 space station. Technicians were dispatched to the site, but no odor or problem was found.

According to reports, which cite “interpersonal issues” and “psychological issues” of the crew, NASA concluded that the smell was likely a hallucination caused by mission pressure, coupled with a highly dangerous and confined environment.

In one of the missions to the American Skylab space station, the long hours of travel, exhaustion and disagreements between the astronauts and mission control caused the team to turn off communication and spend the day ignoring NASA as they watched the sunrise and the sunset on Earth (which for them happens every 45 minutes, due to the orbit).

Brain problem?

While psychological pressures, distance from home, and stressful work are major villains, research also indicates that skills such as concentration, coordination, and problem solving can also be compromised by issues directly linked to the brain’s behavior in space.

For the specialist in psychology and neuroscience Vaughan Bell, from University College London and columnist for the English newspaper “The Guardian”, one possibility for this is that our blood supply evolved to function in Earth’s gravity. Thus, the efficiency with which oxygen goes to the brain is affected in space and in zero gravity.

Research carried out by the Laboratory of Neuropsychology and Biomechanics of Movement, at the Free University of Brussels, observed something similar: the brain works differently when it is at rest or in orbit. A drop in the astronauts’ mental capacity was noted, nothing serious but measurable, according to the data.

Freud also explains

In 1959, before an astronaut even went into orbit, psychiatrists published an article in the “American Journal of Psychiatry” speculating that a separation from “Mother Earth” could lead to a pathological state of “separation anxiety.”

The consequences would be a sudden desire to destroy the rover and the rest of the crew, as well as suicide. Until now, luckily, this has never happened.

Source: NASA, The Guardian and