Category: Psychology

Why spaceflight might be good for your mental health

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I’m claustrophobic and afraid of heights, so the idea of going to space in a tiny can seems basically nuts.

I was thus intrigued to discover the 2012 NASA book Psychology of Space Exploration, a collection of essays about what going to space does to you — mentally, emotionally, spiritually. It’s freely downloadable here, and I spent tonight reading it.

One thing I learned? Going to space might be “salutogenic” — good for one’s overall well-being.

Some of reasons are what you might imagine. Hey, those spectacular views! Astronauts return aglow from the experience. There’s an phenomenon known as the “overview effect” — the feeling of whoa-dude connectedness-with-all-humanity that astronauts get from gazing at the Earth. I actually wrote a separate essay about this two years ago, but the effect is discussed in this volume too. They note how astronauts become enraptured with taking pictures of the planet: Of the 200,000 Earth pictures taken on eight missions aboard the International Space Station, 84.5% were “crew-initiated”. As Space Shuttle astronaut Kathryn D. Sullivan said, “it’s hard to explain how amazing and magical this experience is.”

But it’s deeper than that. Data suggests that after coming back from flight, astronauts are mentally healthier in the long run, because the trip made them more self-reliant (which is saying something, given that astronauts are awfully self-reliant to begin with):

Studies of the mental health of cosmonauts conducted two or three years after their return to Earth found that they had become less anxious, hypochondriacal, depressive, and aggressive. The most plausible explanation is that during their stay in tough environments, people develop coping skills, that is, ways of dealing with challenge and stress that continue to serve them well long after they have returned from their expedition.

This effect has also been observed in crew members who return from long missions to Antartica — where, as with space-station flight, they’re stuck inside tiny quarters for months. Indeed, the more obnoxiously bad the Antarctica mission, the better their long-term wellness. As one researcher found …

… a depressed mood was inversely associated with the severity of station physical environments — that is, the better the environment, the worse the depression — and that the winter-over experience was associated with reduced subsequent rates of hospital admissions. He and others have speculated that the experience of adapting to the isolation and confinement, in general, improved an individual’s self-efficacy and self-reliance and engendered coping skills that they used in other areas of life to buffer subsequent stress and resultant illnesses.

Intriguing. But Elon Musk can look elsewhere; I’m still never gonna volunteer for space flight.