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Spiegeloog 418: TimeTerra

Terra: The Psychology Behind Polar Expeditions

By April 13, 2022No Comments

Did you know that you don’t have to go all the way to space to experience what it is like?

Did you know that you don’t have to go all the way to space to experience what it is like?

Photo by Sander Crombach
Photo by Sander Crombach

The human psyche can take quite a beating. For instance, many of us international students have to go through the rough adaptation process that arises with moving to a whole new country, speaking foreign languages on a daily basis, and mingling with new cultures. To cheer us up through the hard process, our family and friends often say things like “Don’t worry, you will get used to it. You will adapt.” And, hopefully, most of us grow to find that saying to be true. But does that advice hold up in extremely hostile environments? How many of us would confirm it to be true when sent off to the most remote, cold places on the planet? And what qualities lie behind those of us who do?

Polar expeditions involve any expeditions that include the most distant and cold environments on our planet. As such, master polar guide Dixie Dansercoer includes not only the North or South Pole in this definition, but also Siberia, or the island of Svalbard in Norway (Dansercoer, 2021). Polar expeditions are a fascinating quest – one filled with many days of rigorous training of the body and the mind, extensive preparation, and learning teamwork and leadership skills. Not surprisingly, all of this requires a relentless determination by those who wish to embark on such a journey. Polar expeditions are so incredibly distant from the obstacles that daily life throws at us that their only valid comparison is space travel (Leon et al., 2011). In fact, much of what we predicted about what exploring space would be like and how to prepare astronauts for it, is based on how people adapted psychologically and neurologically during polar expeditions (Stuster, 2011). Thus, psychological research into polar expeditions is incredibly beneficial for the future of space exploration.

Polar expeditions are completed in teams, which then together have to overcome a huge number of obstacles, such as building polar camps while battling blizzards, minding slippery ice, frozen lakes, crevasses, and travelling for long hours in extreme temperatures. All of this is done while being almost entirely cut off from civilization, unable to talk to loved ones or just anybody else besides your team. These conditions of extreme environmental danger and isolation raise the possibility of injuries, diseases, and death. Thus, a polar expedition team must run like clockwork – everyone must be prepared for their individual part in the team and for the teamwork itself.

“The persistent lack of privacy and inability to talk to anybody else besides your own team are all social confinement factors that may lead to interpersonal tension and conflict.”

The main factors influencing human performance during polar expeditions can be divided into environmental, psychological, and social (Leon et al., 2011). The hostile environmental conditions are already one enormous factor. The cold numbs muscles and decreases cognitive capacity, while the winter darkness severely disturbs sleep patterns and raises the risk of depression onset. In turn, disruptions of sleep lead to less deep sleep, which means less memory consolidation. Sleep problems also increase interpersonal conflict, decreased work performance, and somatic complaints (Leon et al., 2011).

To complement this, there are a number of psychological factors at play. As mentioned, the periods of isolation, coupled with extreme fatigue from the long lengths of the expeditions and insomnia from the highly uncomfortable sleeping arrangements all add up quickly to threaten both the mission and the explorers’ lives. Negative affect is a common result of all these factors, comprising of depression, anxiety, and irritability (Palinkas & Suedfeld, 2008).

Lastly, even though polar explorers are not necessarily confined to one space, they are confined within one social group. The persistent lack of privacy and inability to talk to anybody else besides your own team are all social confinement factors that may lead to interpersonal tension and conflict (Sagar & Pattanayak, 2015). Especially groups with low social coherence threaten increased depression and anger within their members, compared to groups with high social coherence (Palinkas, 2003).

It so appears that there are many factors to consider on a polar expedition. Taking all of this into account, how does one prepare? Truth be told, most research actually states the majority of the preparation comes from selecting the right individuals for the task to begin with. It must be noted that such measures are mainly taken for longer-term expeditions. For example, one participant shared she rather enjoyed the darkness during the winter period, thus suffering less negative affect (Rothblum et al., 1998). This shows that individual differences in sensitivity to and preferences for the environment are highly important. Based on such findings, current procedures in preventing unfavourable psychological and physical outcomes, and promoting good coping, involve screening and selecting better-suited candidates for polar expeditions (Palinkas & Suedfeld, 2008). Such screenings are in the form of clinical interviews and look for people with few prior instances of psychological disorders.

In addition to that, a number of personal characteristics are sought in future explorers in long-term missions, such as a low need for order, high tolerance of little mental stimulation, low neuroticism, and a higher level of social adeptness (Guly, 2012). Although Guly (2012) states a need for high introversion, a recent article describes the majority of polar explorers score intermediately between extroversion and introversion, with only 2.8% being pronounced introverts, and 36.1% being extroverted (Bakhmutova, 2021). Sir Ernest Shackleton, a world-famous 20th-century polar explorer with many success stories behind his back (Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d.; Royal Museums Greenwich, n.d.), has also elaborated on some necessary characteristics. He states an explorer should be optimistic, idealistic, and selfless, so as to brighten up the team atmosphere (Shackleton, 1914). The second step of psychological preparation is psychological training. Even if you were to select the best potential explorers, they must be well-informed of the high possibility of ‘disaster situations’, the temporal onset of mental illness, such as the winter-over syndrome and seasonal affective disorder, and impaired cognition that arises from the cold and lack of intellectual stimulation (Guly, 2012).

“Research finds gender-mixed groups to be more successful than homogeneous groups.”

So far, we have prepared the individual. But team formation is just as crucial. Research finds gender-mixed groups to be more successful than homogeneous groups. For example, women were shown to promote group cohesion and help improve communication (Zimmer et al., 2013). In addition to that, leadership skills in such extreme environments are unsurprisingly crucial, with a high need for considerate leaders who pay attention to the well-being of the members and keep roles and responsibilities clear (Sandal et al., 2006). Lastly, communication in teams is important not only in terms of work performance but also with regard to mental health. Prior work shows members experiencing greater distress when unable to discuss personal problems with their team members (Kjærgaard et al., 2015).

So you might be thinking, “Aren’t polar expeditions a thing of the past?” It is true that nowadays, most polar work consists of shorter-term summer treks, and about 150-200 people work at polar stations during the summer, with around 50-100 working during the entirety of the winter period (AMNH, n.d.; Rothera Research Station, 2021). However, polar expeditions and polar research centres still present with the only comparable environment on earth that can compare to the environment of space exploration. In general, polar psychology finds that negative effect scores within expedition members decrease over time, due to successful adaptation. While depression scores generally do remain high throughout the mission, there are a number of factors that also increase positive affect, such as the rewarding feel of adaptation and appreciation of the environment. Overall, there is considerable variability of symptoms and affect within polar exploration, and these findings, alongside simulation settings of space exploration, can serve as training opportunities and as a basis for space exploration preparation (Alfano et al., 2018). <<

References

– Alfano, C. A., Bower, J. L., Cowie, J., Lau, S., & Simpson, R. J. (2018). Long-duration space exploration and emotional health: recommendations for conceptualizing and evaluating risk. Acta Astronautica, 142, 289-299. 
– Bakhmutova, L. (2021). Main features of expeditioners’ personality traits in Antarctic conditions. Mental Health: Global Challenges Journal, 4(1).
– Dansercoer, D. (2021, April 21). How to Become a Polar Explorer From an IPGA Master Guide. 57hours. https://57hours.com/blog/polar-explorer/
– Ernest Shackleton | Biography, Expedition, Facts, & Voyage of Endurance. (n.d.). Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Ernest-Henry-Shackleton
– Guly, H. R. (2012). Psychology during the expeditions of the heroic age of Antarctic exploration. History of psychiatry, 23(2), 194-205.
– Kjærgaard, A., Leon, G. R., & Fink, B. A. (2015). Personal challenges, communication processes, and team effectiveness in military special patrol teams operating in a polar environment. Environment and Behavior, 47(6), 644-666.
– Leon, G. R., Sandal, G. M., & Larsen, E. (2011). Human performance in polar environments. Journal of environmental psychology, 31(4), 353-360. 
– Let’s Talk with David Nold about Safety and Wintering Over in Antarctica | AMNH. (n.d.). American Museum of Natural History. https://www.amnh.org/learn-teach/curriculum-collections/antarctica/day-and-night-cycles/safety-and-wintering-over-in-antarctica 
– Palinkas, L. A. (2003). The psychology of isolated and confined environments: Understanding human behavior in Antarctica. American Psychologist, 58(5), 353–363.
– Palinkas, L. A., & Suedfeld, P. (2008). Psychological effects of polar expeditions. The Lancet, 371(9607), 153-163.
– Rothblum, E. D., Weinstock, J. S., & Morris, J. (1998). Women in the Antarctic. Psychology Press.
– Rothera Research Station. (2021, August 18). British Antarctic Survey. https://www.bas.ac.uk/polar-operations/sites-and-facilities/facility/rothera/
– Sagar, R., & Pattanayak, R. D. (2015). ” To the ends of the earth and beyond”: Psychological aspects of circumpolar expeditions. Journal of Mental Health and Human Behaviour, 20(2), 45.
– Shackleton, E. H. (1914). The making of an explorer. Pearson’s Magazine, 38, 138-142.
– South Pole exploration: Sir Ernest Shackleton. (n.d.). Royal Museums Greenwich. https://www.rmg.co.uk/stories/topics/south-pole-exploration-sir-ernest-shackleton
– Stuster, J. W. (2011). Bold endeavors: Lessons from polar and space exploration. Naval Institute Press. 
– Zimmer, M., Cabral, J. C. C. R., Borges, F. C., Côco, K. G., & Hameister, B. D. R. (2013). Psychological changes arising from an Antarctic stay: Systematic overview. Estudos de Psicologia (Campinas), 30, 415-423.

The human psyche can take quite a beating. For instance, many of us international students have to go through the rough adaptation process that arises with moving to a whole new country, speaking foreign languages on a daily basis, and mingling with new cultures. To cheer us up through the hard process, our family and friends often say things like “Don’t worry, you will get used to it. You will adapt.” And, hopefully, most of us grow to find that saying to be true. But does that advice hold up in extremely hostile environments? How many of us would confirm it to be true when sent off to the most remote, cold places on the planet? And what qualities lie behind those of us who do?

Polar expeditions involve any expeditions that include the most distant and cold environments on our planet. As such, master polar guide Dixie Dansercoer includes not only the North or South Pole in this definition, but also Siberia, or the island of Svalbard in Norway (Dansercoer, 2021). Polar expeditions are a fascinating quest – one filled with many days of rigorous training of the body and the mind, extensive preparation, and learning teamwork and leadership skills. Not surprisingly, all of this requires a relentless determination by those who wish to embark on such a journey. Polar expeditions are so incredibly distant from the obstacles that daily life throws at us that their only valid comparison is space travel (Leon et al., 2011). In fact, much of what we predicted about what exploring space would be like and how to prepare astronauts for it, is based on how people adapted psychologically and neurologically during polar expeditions (Stuster, 2011). Thus, psychological research into polar expeditions is incredibly beneficial for the future of space exploration.

Polar expeditions are completed in teams, which then together have to overcome a huge number of obstacles, such as building polar camps while battling blizzards, minding slippery ice, frozen lakes, crevasses, and travelling for long hours in extreme temperatures. All of this is done while being almost entirely cut off from civilization, unable to talk to loved ones or just anybody else besides your team. These conditions of extreme environmental danger and isolation raise the possibility of injuries, diseases, and death. Thus, a polar expedition team must run like clockwork – everyone must be prepared for their individual part in the team and for the teamwork itself.

“The persistent lack of privacy and inability to talk to anybody else besides your own team are all social confinement factors that may lead to interpersonal tension and conflict.”

The main factors influencing human performance during polar expeditions can be divided into environmental, psychological, and social (Leon et al., 2011). The hostile environmental conditions are already one enormous factor. The cold numbs muscles and decreases cognitive capacity, while the winter darkness severely disturbs sleep patterns and raises the risk of depression onset. In turn, disruptions of sleep lead to less deep sleep, which means less memory consolidation. Sleep problems also increase interpersonal conflict, decreased work performance, and somatic complaints (Leon et al., 2011).

To complement this, there are a number of psychological factors at play. As mentioned, the periods of isolation, coupled with extreme fatigue from the long lengths of the expeditions and insomnia from the highly uncomfortable sleeping arrangements all add up quickly to threaten both the mission and the explorers’ lives. Negative affect is a common result of all these factors, comprising of depression, anxiety, and irritability (Palinkas & Suedfeld, 2008).

Lastly, even though polar explorers are not necessarily confined to one space, they are confined within one social group. The persistent lack of privacy and inability to talk to anybody else besides your own team are all social confinement factors that may lead to interpersonal tension and conflict (Sagar & Pattanayak, 2015). Especially groups with low social coherence threaten increased depression and anger within their members, compared to groups with high social coherence (Palinkas, 2003).

It so appears that there are many factors to consider on a polar expedition. Taking all of this into account, how does one prepare? Truth be told, most research actually states the majority of the preparation comes from selecting the right individuals for the task to begin with. It must be noted that such measures are mainly taken for longer-term expeditions. For example, one participant shared she rather enjoyed the darkness during the winter period, thus suffering less negative affect (Rothblum et al., 1998). This shows that individual differences in sensitivity to and preferences for the environment are highly important. Based on such findings, current procedures in preventing unfavourable psychological and physical outcomes, and promoting good coping, involve screening and selecting better-suited candidates for polar expeditions (Palinkas & Suedfeld, 2008). Such screenings are in the form of clinical interviews and look for people with few prior instances of psychological disorders.

In addition to that, a number of personal characteristics are sought in future explorers in long-term missions, such as a low need for order, high tolerance of little mental stimulation, low neuroticism, and a higher level of social adeptness (Guly, 2012). Although Guly (2012) states a need for high introversion, a recent article describes the majority of polar explorers score intermediately between extroversion and introversion, with only 2.8% being pronounced introverts, and 36.1% being extroverted (Bakhmutova, 2021). Sir Ernest Shackleton, a world-famous 20th-century polar explorer with many success stories behind his back (Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d.; Royal Museums Greenwich, n.d.), has also elaborated on some necessary characteristics. He states an explorer should be optimistic, idealistic, and selfless, so as to brighten up the team atmosphere (Shackleton, 1914). The second step of psychological preparation is psychological training. Even if you were to select the best potential explorers, they must be well-informed of the high possibility of ‘disaster situations’, the temporal onset of mental illness, such as the winter-over syndrome and seasonal affective disorder, and impaired cognition that arises from the cold and lack of intellectual stimulation (Guly, 2012).

“Research finds gender-mixed groups to be more successful than homogeneous groups.”

So far, we have prepared the individual. But team formation is just as crucial. Research finds gender-mixed groups to be more successful than homogeneous groups. For example, women were shown to promote group cohesion and help improve communication (Zimmer et al., 2013). In addition to that, leadership skills in such extreme environments are unsurprisingly crucial, with a high need for considerate leaders who pay attention to the well-being of the members and keep roles and responsibilities clear (Sandal et al., 2006). Lastly, communication in teams is important not only in terms of work performance but also with regard to mental health. Prior work shows members experiencing greater distress when unable to discuss personal problems with their team members (Kjærgaard et al., 2015).

So you might be thinking, “Aren’t polar expeditions a thing of the past?” It is true that nowadays, most polar work consists of shorter-term summer treks, and about 150-200 people work at polar stations during the summer, with around 50-100 working during the entirety of the winter period (AMNH, n.d.; Rothera Research Station, 2021). However, polar expeditions and polar research centres still present with the only comparable environment on earth that can compare to the environment of space exploration. In general, polar psychology finds that negative effect scores within expedition members decrease over time, due to successful adaptation. While depression scores generally do remain high throughout the mission, there are a number of factors that also increase positive affect, such as the rewarding feel of adaptation and appreciation of the environment. Overall, there is considerable variability of symptoms and affect within polar exploration, and these findings, alongside simulation settings of space exploration, can serve as training opportunities and as a basis for space exploration preparation (Alfano et al., 2018). <<

References

– Alfano, C. A., Bower, J. L., Cowie, J., Lau, S., & Simpson, R. J. (2018). Long-duration space exploration and emotional health: recommendations for conceptualizing and evaluating risk. Acta Astronautica, 142, 289-299. 
– Bakhmutova, L. (2021). Main features of expeditioners’ personality traits in Antarctic conditions. Mental Health: Global Challenges Journal, 4(1).
– Dansercoer, D. (2021, April 21). How to Become a Polar Explorer From an IPGA Master Guide. 57hours. https://57hours.com/blog/polar-explorer/
– Ernest Shackleton | Biography, Expedition, Facts, & Voyage of Endurance. (n.d.). Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Ernest-Henry-Shackleton
– Guly, H. R. (2012). Psychology during the expeditions of the heroic age of Antarctic exploration. History of psychiatry, 23(2), 194-205.
– Kjærgaard, A., Leon, G. R., & Fink, B. A. (2015). Personal challenges, communication processes, and team effectiveness in military special patrol teams operating in a polar environment. Environment and Behavior, 47(6), 644-666.
– Leon, G. R., Sandal, G. M., & Larsen, E. (2011). Human performance in polar environments. Journal of environmental psychology, 31(4), 353-360. 
– Let’s Talk with David Nold about Safety and Wintering Over in Antarctica | AMNH. (n.d.). American Museum of Natural History. https://www.amnh.org/learn-teach/curriculum-collections/antarctica/day-and-night-cycles/safety-and-wintering-over-in-antarctica 
– Palinkas, L. A. (2003). The psychology of isolated and confined environments: Understanding human behavior in Antarctica. American Psychologist, 58(5), 353–363.
– Palinkas, L. A., & Suedfeld, P. (2008). Psychological effects of polar expeditions. The Lancet, 371(9607), 153-163.
– Rothblum, E. D., Weinstock, J. S., & Morris, J. (1998). Women in the Antarctic. Psychology Press.
– Rothera Research Station. (2021, August 18). British Antarctic Survey. https://www.bas.ac.uk/polar-operations/sites-and-facilities/facility/rothera/
– Sagar, R., & Pattanayak, R. D. (2015). ” To the ends of the earth and beyond”: Psychological aspects of circumpolar expeditions. Journal of Mental Health and Human Behaviour, 20(2), 45.
– Shackleton, E. H. (1914). The making of an explorer. Pearson’s Magazine, 38, 138-142.
– South Pole exploration: Sir Ernest Shackleton. (n.d.). Royal Museums Greenwich. https://www.rmg.co.uk/stories/topics/south-pole-exploration-sir-ernest-shackleton
– Stuster, J. W. (2011). Bold endeavors: Lessons from polar and space exploration. Naval Institute Press. 
– Zimmer, M., Cabral, J. C. C. R., Borges, F. C., Côco, K. G., & Hameister, B. D. R. (2013). Psychological changes arising from an Antarctic stay: Systematic overview. Estudos de Psicologia (Campinas), 30, 415-423.
Emanuela Zhecheva

Author Emanuela Zhecheva

Emma (2000) is a third-year Psychology student, interested in researching the topics of decision-making, team dynamics and individual differences from an interdisciplinary lens. In her free time, she seeks to pet every street cat.

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