Exploring the explorers: studying the mood, mental health, cognition and the lived experience of extreme environments in a small isolated team confined to an Arctic research station
Temp, Anna Gesine Marie
Background: The human ability to adapt to extreme environments is fascinating. Research into this adaptation has been lacking in Arctic isolated teams because it has concentrated on Antarctic teams. The hazards of the poles often confine the researchers indoors with their colleagues, reducing their privacy. This deployment also limits their contact with loved ones at home. Subsequently, over the course of polar night, rates of anxiety, depression, irritability and sleep disturbance increase (Suedfeld & Palinkas, 2008). Often, the teams complain of cognitive impairments. The High Arctic’s distinctive feature is the polar bear. The presence of bears requires Arctic research station teams to handle fire arms for their personal safety. It also means that fire arms – which are highly restricted in the Antarctic – are ever-present and easily accessible at Arctic stations. This poses a unique psychological challenge for these teams which has not been well-researched. Methodology: This thesis is an original contribution to science in that it employs a mixed-methods approach combining phenomenological interviews, cognitive testing and mental health assessment via questionnaires with a team spending a year at the Polish Polar Station, Hornsund, Svalbard. The participants were ten of the eleven winter team members who spent the year between July 2015 and June 2016 at Hornsund (“Explorers”) and an age-/gender-/education-matched control group (“Controls”). They filled in the Symptom Checklist-90-Revised and the Profile of Mood States-Brief Version in July, September, January, April and June of that year. Cognitive testing was completed in September, January and June; it comprised the Figural Learning and Memory Test, the Sustained Attention to Response Task (SART), the elevator tasks of the Test of Everyday Attention (TEA) and the Raven Standard Progressive Matrices. The interviews took place at the same time as the cognitive testing. Results: The results showed that the most stressful time reported in the questionnaires was April 2016, just after the winter isolation had ended and the sun had risen again. The Explorers reported little subjective complaints about their cognition but they performed near-ceiling on the TEA while scoring far below their Controls on the SART. This implies a dichotomy between sustained attention and inhibition in the Explorers. Their lived experiences were shaped by a struggle to adapt to the other team members rather than by struggling to adapt to the hazardous environment. The environment was perceived as awe-inspiring. Over time, the Explorers shifted their view of the team from informal colleagues to a family which they did not choose to be a member of and then, to friends. Unanimously, other people were seen as the most difficult aspect of the mission. Conclusions: This thesis provides unique insight into a non-Anglo-Saxon Arctic wintering team: the conclusions suggest that participants should receive social training to get along better and be emotionally prepared. The findings can be implemented by my research partner, the Institute of Geophysics (Warsaw) to better select and prepare their future expeditions to Hornsund. Some of the insights such as the nature of the interpersonal stressors may be applicable to space missions.