People are choosing to live in extreme conditions in the name of science. What can be learned from these bizarre experiments?
This article was first published in the July/August issue of IQ, our exclusive magazine for Mensa members. Some edits have been made to account for the passage of time.
We all feel the urge to escape from time to time. But some people are taking that further than others, embarking on extreme challenges that deprive them of light, warmth and human contact – all in the name of research.
In April 2023, Spanish elite athlete Beatriz Flamini emerged after spending 500 days living in a subterranean cave in southern Spain, 70ft below the Earth’s surface. Flamini, who was 48 years old when she descended into the cave and is now 50, embarked on the challenge hoping to learn more about the physical and mental effects of extreme solitude and sensory deprivation.
During the experiment, her only contact with the outside world was through limited messaging with the scientists who monitored her. She lost track of time after day 65, whiling away the hours by reading, writing, drawing and knitting.
When Flamini resurfaced, she seemed in remarkably good spirits, describing the experience as “excellent, unbeatable”. Despite having tough moments, including auditory hallucinations, a fly infestation and a strong craving for a roast dinner, Flamini told reporters that she never considered giving up – “In fact, I didn’t want to come out,” she said.
Researchers at Spanish universities alongside a Madrid sleep clinic are now studying Flamini to determine the short- and long-term effects of social isolation and disorientation on things like circadian rhythm and perception of time.
Elsewhere, in March 2023, American scientist and former US Navy diver Joe Dituri embarked on a challenge to spend 100 days living underwater in a 55-square-metre space. Whereas submarines are sealed at submersion to maintain sea-level pressure, Dituri’s underwater home contained no solid hatches or air locks between the ocean and the living space. He experienced the pressure found 30 feet below sea level – around twice as much as he is used to on land.
Dituri spent longer in a habitat beneath the surface of the ocean than anybody before him. But it wasn’t just the world record Dituri hoped to unlock. A medical team examined the impact of living in this high-pressure environment by regularly diving down to run tests. A psychologist and psychiatrist also documented the mental effects of being in an isolated, confined environment for an extended period.
Dituri’s “null hypothesis” was that his health would improve, referencing evidence that increased pressure can improve human longevity and prevent age-related diseases.
At the time he said: “So, we suspect I am going to come out super-human!”