It has always seemed to me that overwintering in Antarctica would be a fascinating experience, albeit not one I would engage in lightly if at all. I would not consider myself psychologically stable enough to endure the isolation. In any case, I would never have thought it could be beneficial to one's psychological health.
This article in Le Figaro online (which I only found thanks to a reference in a mountaineering blog of all places) refers to a recent article in The Lancet (Palinkas & Suedfeld, 2007) on the subject of the consequences of living for long periods of time in the polar regions.
It seems from this study, which includes amongst other measures of "health" the examination of diaries or logs written by the overwintering team themselves, that the physiological and psychological reactions to the environment are by no means only detrimental.
Of course there is an increased risk of accidents tied the the climactic conditions, and also some derailment of thyroid function and of the internal body clock. These last tend to cause perturbed sleep patterns, a loss of intellectual prowess and memory, and increased irritability that can lead to tensions and conflicts, all of which can cause depression.
However, the authors of the study underline that there are also positive side effects, notably the joy and self confidence that are a direct consequence of living in these difficult conditions and surmounting the difficulties as they come. The authors also found in the diaries many references to the beauty and grandeur of the environment, to the camaraderie and support of the entire team, and to the strong emotions generated by facing and surmounting the challenges the environment brings. It is also significant that many of those who overwinter once in Antarctica, apply to do so again.
All this rings true to me, although I have not, and probably never will, overwinter anywhere. Not only because I have been reading a number of web-logs of current and past overwinterers, but also because I have felt the same emotions myself, the same camaraderie, joy and self confidence, during summer campaigns in the sub-Antarctic. There is a saying in our group at the lab :
"The more difficult the campaign is, the better the memories when you surmount the difficulties, and the sooner you want to go back!."
L. Palinkas & P. Suedfeld, 2007. Psychological effects of polar expeditions, The Lancet, DOI:10.1016/S0140-6736(07)61056-3
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