Friday, May 14, 2010

The Cosmonaut Box

Romain Charles and Diego Urbina are the first of a crew of six selected by the Russian space program to be sealed inside a shipping container for 18 months. The purpose of this experiment is to simulate the physical and psychological effects of a trip to Mars and back.

One of the major concerns they are studying is Solipsism Syndrome, which can cause people in extreme isolation to believe that nothing outside their own mind exists. Solipsism syndrome was the subject of the Twilight Zone's 1959 pilot episode, "Where is Everybody?" and has been on the space program's mind for a very long time. The following is a description taken from Nasa's Recommendations for Space Settlement Design.

Some environments are conducive to the state of mind in which a person feels that everything is a dream and is not real. This state of mind occurs, for example, in the Arctic winter when it is night 24 hr a day. It is also known to occur in some youths who have been brought up on television as a substitute to reality.

Solipsism is a philosophical theory that everything is in the imagination, and there is no reality outside one's own brain. As a philosophical theory it is interesting because is is internally consistent and, therefore, cannot be disproved. But as a psychological state, it is highly uncomfortable. The whole of life becomes a long dream from which an individual can never wake up. Each person is trapped in a nightmare. Even friends are not real, they are a part of the dream. A person feels very lonely and detached, and eventually becomes apathetic and indifferent.

In the small town of Lund, Sweden, the winter days have 6 hr of daylight and 18 hr of darkness. Most of the time people live under artificial light, so that life acquires a special quality. Outdoors, there is no landscape to see; only street corners lit by lamps. These street corners look like theater stages, detached from one another. There is no connectedness or depth in the universe and it acquires a very unreal quality as though the whole world is imagination. Ingmar Bergman's film "Wild Strawberries" expresses this feeling very well.

This state of mind can be easily produced in an environment where everything is artificial, where everything is like a theater stage, where every wish can be fulfilled by a push-button, and where there is nothing beyond the theater stage and beyond an individual's control.

When scientists reference Bergman films in government documents we have proof that the phenomenon is a bizarre nexus of reality and dreamlike fantasy.

I'm really excited about this experiment and I'm hoping that Fox TV acquires the rights to edit the scientific footage into an extreme Big Brother reality show. More than that, I salute these brave men for sacrificing years of their life and (potentially) their own sanity to answering this important question: "What happens when someone believes that the world around them is fake when they know that the mission that put them in that state is fake?"
Does this accelerate the losing-it process?
Do the two illusions cancel each other out making the fake mission seem real?
Perhaps the cosmonauts will end their mission like Arnold Shwartzenegger in Total Recall, stepping out of their capsule into the illusory orange dust of a rocky Martian mountain peak while their body lies trapped in a metal contraption on some other world.
The other option is that confining six strangers in a tight space for a time period longer than many starter marriages might end like this:

Fox producers should take note.

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