Here's what being stranded on Mars like Matt Damon in 'The Martian' would do to your mind
20th Century Fox
As Elton John once said, it's lonely out in space.And it's even lonelier being stranded on a planet millions of miles from Earth, without communication, adequate food, or much hope of getting back home. That's the grim prospect Matt Damon's character faces in "The Martian," the upcoming film based on the novel by Andy Weir.
Watney's technical prowess enables him to tackle the practical problems of getting enough water, oxygen, and food.But perhaps the greatest hurdle he faces is psychological.
We talked to a NASA psychologist to find out if someone stranded on Mars could really make it without losing his or her mind."People have been able to keep it together mentally before" under extreme circumstances, such as being prisoners of war, Al Holland, a senior operational psychologist at NASA, told Business Insider. "We know that humans can be very resilient. One thing humans do very well is adapt."One thing that's important for staying sane on journeys to space is real-time communication, which helps astronauts feel connected to friends and family. Thankfully for most of today's astronauts - including NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, who's spending a year on the International Space Station - communication is delayed by only a fraction of a second.
But on Mars, there would be a lag of about 20 minutes each way, which means a single exchange would take 40 minutes. In "The Martian," Watney faces the added difficulty of having to communicate with NASA using the camera on an old rover, which NASA can only use by pointing at letters and spelling out words. Talk about frustrating.
20th Century Fox
A sense of humor is a huge asset for anyone, particularly for an astronaut, because it allows him or her to remain positive. Studies have shown that people use humor to cope with everything from losing their vision to having cancer.
Holland says it's also completely healthy for someone who is completely isolated to start having relationships with inanimate objects (think Wilson the volleyball in the film "Castaway"). As for Watney, he develops a kind of relationship with the camera he uses to log his captivity on Mars.Keeping focused on actively doing things is also important for avoiding depression like the kind that Mark Watney might have experienced (psychologists call this behavioral activation). For example, people who are kept in solitary confinement will do things like construct a house in their mind, brick by brick, Holland says. In Watney's case, he throws himself into solving each problem that presents itself on Mars, MacGuiver-style.
Although NASA trains its astronauts to deal with solitude, American astronauts still felt isolated when they flew to the Russian space station Mir in the 1990s, according to Holland. The predominant language was Russian, and communication with family on Earth wasn't reliable.Astronauts have different strategies for keeping busy in space. Some read, some make things, and others focus more on their work. But astronauts going to Mars will likely have to be even more independent, more focused, and more resilient than those of today are.
The Martian premiers on Oct. 2.
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