Snoozing all the way to Mars
SMALL PRINTS:Imagine being cooped up on a spacecraft for months while travelling all the way to Mars and back.
No human has been to the red planet yet, but research published this week offers a glimpse of what such a journey might do to the human body.
The study analysed data from the six male crew members of the European Space Agency-funded Mars500 project, who spent 520 days in a confinement facility in Russia that simulated an expedition to Mars.
In general, the men became more sedentary as the mission wore on – except for the last 20 days, where they may have been more active “due to their psychological anticipation of mission end”, note the authors online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Various crew members also experienced effects such as disturbed sleep quality, reduced alertness and altered sleep-wake intervals and timing, with some being more affected than others.
“A balance must be struck during human exploration of space between the critical need for adequate time for sleep and rest and the need to maintain activity levels for physical and physiological fitness,” write the authors.
But you don’t need to climb into a spacecraft to get out of sync. The paper points out that back on Earth there’s evidence that work schedules, alarm clocks, television programming times and school start times can contribute to sleep restriction and a mismatch between body and social clocks.
“As a global society, we need to re-evaluate how we view sleep as it relates to our overall health and ability to lead productive lives,” said researcher David Dinges from the University of Pennsylvania in a statement.
Short interruptions could derail your train of . . .
An interruption of only a few seconds might have more of an effect than you think, according to a study out this week in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.
“I’ve studied longer interruptions, about the length of a short phone call (tens of seconds), and found large disruptive effects,” says researcher Dr Erik Altmann, associate professor of psychology at Michigan State University. “This got me to wondering how short an interruption could be and still be disruptive, so I kept making them shorter, and bottomed out in this study at two to three seconds. This is about the time it takes to reach for your cellphone just to shut it off.”
The study asked participants to carry out computer-based tasks, and found that if they were distracted for a few seconds, they tended to make more errors. And while the research didn’t specifically involve phones, Altmann draws the parallel.
“In my study, the interruption task was very simple: type two random letters shown on the computer monitor, and press return. No real thought was involved, just as no real thought is involved in reaching for a cell phone knowing you want to turn it off, and turning it off,” he says. “I hope people who steal glances at their cellphones in the middle of a conversation, for example, will develop a greater appreciation of the extent to which they are taking themselves out of the moment.”