Astronauts and Cosmonauts Experience Drowsiness Differently

from the desk of IEEE Spectrum contributor Morgen Peck

According to a report in the journal Acta Astronautica, Russians and Americans describe and experience drowsiness differently. A collaboration of researchers in San Francisco and Moscow found that, in the setting of the International Space Station [ISS], cosmonauts tend to suffer symptoms of depression as they tire, whereas astronauts more often experience fatigue as a discreet state. Language in the two cultures suggests the same distinction. Russian physicians have a term for linked depression and drowsiness (asthenia) that lacks an equivalent in English.

The distinction could be extremely useful as we consider putting humans farther into space. If you consider day-to-day realities, the oft-touted plan to â''go to Marsâ'' is much more about the going than it is about Mars. Before these hypothetical adventurers reach their destination, the public will have cycled many times through forgetting and remembering that theyâ''re even up there. Meanwhile, the bodies will float around, bored, lonely, sleep deprived, and in constant danger.

Scientists in Russia are starting to take the psychology of long-term space travel seriously (even if NASA isnâ''t) and they will soon throw six lucky volunteers into a simulator for over a year to see how many come out with sanity intact. The success of the experiment depends in large part on designing assessments that are sensitive enough to detect psychological aberrations while they can still be treated. The new research from the International Space Station suggests that psychologists working on the simulation project could screen for early onset of depression by gauging how tired a cosmonaut is.

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