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Health, Science, The Mind

How to Survive being trapped in a Mine

I’m sure you’ve read and seen about the Chilean mining disaster in the news: 33 miners are trapped 700 metres below ground level. A narrow bore hole has enabled food and supplies to be passed down and video footage now shows the miners in remarkably good health (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-11106045). It’s going to be some time (possibly months) until the miners can be rescued. Perversely, anti-depressants have been sent down with supplies down the narrow supply hole to help the miners cope.
How well do you think you would cope? What happens to humans when they are subject to isolation? Put simply, if the isolation is bad enough – you go mad.

Effects of isolation

In the 1950’s the CIA became very interested in ‘mind-control’. Uncle Sam had become worried that the Communist states had developed technologies and techniques to control individual’s minds. How else could so many people believe in communism they reasoned? They invested in a considerable amount of covert research, including the use of drugs, hypnotism and ‘brain-washing’ techniques. One infamous experiment involved subjecting subjects to complete and total sensory deprivation. They were given food, water and use of some form of toilet. People were placed in chambers or small rooms devised to eliminate all sound, light, smell or even sense of touch. Subjects were blindfolded, and even in some experiments given padded gloves and cushioned clothing so that even touch sensation was minimised.

Even the sanest of volunteers couldn’t cope for very long: set a target of 24 hours, only 1 in 10 candidates could last out. Minutes felt like hours and to make matters worse, in such an environment nearly every subject experienced vivid visual and auditory hallucinations. It is as if the brain needs some form of input of stimulation. Failing that, it makes its own.

If you’re interested in this the BBC recreated some of these experiments in a ‘Horizon’ documentary in 2008 (http://www.bbc.co.uk/sn/tvradio/programmes/horizon/broadband/tx/isolation/). Case studies of people subject to prolonged sensory isolation invariably end up with some form of psychosis.

But our miners thankfully won’t be on their own. I imagine topic of conversation will run dry very quickly and I expect that as anyone who has watched TV’s ‘Big Brother’ will know, the challenge may lay in getting on with each other and relieving the monotony.

What do the experts recommend? Michele Siffre is a scientist spent two months on his own in a cave in freezing temperatures as part of an endurance test (sounds like madness to me) in 1962. He advises that once nutrition and basic sanitation has been taken care of:

 “Mental attitude is everything. You have to have faith.”

“The experience of concentration camps, outbreaks of disease or shipwrecks shows that those who believe they will survive have a better chance than those who give up.” (http://www.iol.co.za/index.php?set_id=1&click_id=3&art_id=nw20100823193747350C355484)

University College London psychology expert James Thompson suggests that a combination of optimism, team spirit and staying occupied should be enough to keep them psychologically well. (http://www.voanews.com/english/news/americas/Trapped-Chilean-Miners-Face-Psychological-Physical-Challenges-101573353.html)

I can only imagine that the promise of rescue “by Christmas” gives the trapped miners something to hope for.

Can science tell us any more?

Well there have been a great many studies on individuals put in confined and extreme isolated situations (such as living in the arctic and during space travel). Back in February, the European Space Agency started Mars500 – something of a role-playing geek’s dream: six ‘astronauts’ boarded an artificial spaceship near Moscow to find out what two years in an isolation facility would do (Follow it online at: http://www.esa.int/esaMI/Mars500/).

How do you think you would cope in social isolation? The answer may lie in your personality type. Results from experiments of people cooped up together for prolonged periods are that there are increased rates of disturbances of mood, psychiatric disorder, interpersonal tension, and a disruption of circadian (sleep-wake) rhythms. However, if you are a friendly and open person you are far more likely to emerge relatively unscathed (Sarris, 2007).



Sarris A. Antarctic culture: 50 years of Antarctic expeditions. Aviat Space Environ Med. 2007 Sep;78(9):886-92

Streatfeild, D 2006 Brainwash: the secret history of mind control. London: Hodder & Stoughton

About Stuart Farrimond

I love writing about science and health subjects. Strange, because I also teach the same things. I trained as a medical doctor before turning my hand to other things. Shortlisted for The Guardian/Observer for Science Writer of the Year 2011 and editor for Guru Magazine I also like to grow large pumpkins...


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