Everybody has a favorite psychological experiment where a bunch of people were put in an isolated place for a number of weeks, then left to let nature take its course.
Classics of the genre include the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, in which volunteers were locked into a prison and assigned the roles of either prisoner or guards, and the Biosphere 2 project, which saw eight people sealed inside an artificial biosphere for 2 years. Needless to say, both went horribly wrong, with the prison experiment ending in a complete (and possibly partially-staged) horror show, and Biosphere 2 ending after the oxygen inside hit dangerous levels and everyone nearly starved.
Following in their footsteps comes Deep Time, an experiment that has just shut 15 people inside a dark cave for 40 days, with no access to natural light or the ability to tell time. What could possibly go wrong?
On March 14, a team of 15 volunteers – eight men and seven women – were sealed into a cave in Ariège, France. The goal is to observe the effects of long-term isolation, without any concept of time. As such, they will have no source of light, no phones, watches, or any other method of knowing even what day it is. The only source of light will be provided through using a pedal-driven dynamo to create electricity.
"Losing time is the greatest disorientation there is," according to the project's website. "And it is this aspect that the mission Deep Time wants to understand better. Because to this day, we do not know how our cognitive system understands and manages this indefinite continuity, this environment where the succession of events and phenomena takes place, even beyond this variable that we could call the biological clock in chronobiology."
The volunteers – aged 27 to 50 and made up of everyone from primary school teachers to biologists – are all fitted with sensors, which can be monitored by scientists outside the cave as they adapt to mole life, living in the dark and humid depths.
"This experiment is a world first," Professor Etienne Koechlin, a neuroscientist at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, told 7sur7. "Until now, all missions of this type focused on the study of the physiological rhythms of the body, but never on the impact of this type of temporal rupture on the cognitive and emotional functions of the human being."
The project hopes that the experiment could have multiple applications ranging from how best to deal with time spent on submarines or in underground mines, to space travel, including longer missions way into our future.
"The conquest of space takes a new turn during this century, enabled by new technologies and rising figures," the project says. "From the Moon to Mars, by targeting other stellar objects, such as Ceres, humans will face new perceptions of time."
The experiment is not without its controversies. Mission leader Christian Clot, who in an unusual move has entered the cave with the other volunteers, has been criticized in the French press for calling himself a "researcher" when he has no scientific background.
Should everything go as planned, the team of volunteers will exit the cave on April 22, 2021. Who knows what date it will feel like to them, though.
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