Friday, January 2, 2015

Emma Barrett and Paul Martin's "Extreme"

Emma Barrett is a Chartered Psychologist based in the United Kingdom. She is Honorary Researcher in Psychology at Lancaster University and is co-author, with Paul Martin, of Extreme: Why Some People Thrive at the Limits.

Barrett applied the “Page 99 Test” to Extreme and reported the following:
Extreme is about how people cope in hostile environments – places like the ocean depths, mountain tops, polar regions, and space. As well as surviving life-threatening physical dangers such as extremes of temperature or lack of breathable gases, they also deal with psychological hazards like fear, sleep deprivation, and monotony.

Some of the most significant psychological pressures are related to the social side of extreme activities. Being cooped up for long periods with other people can be enormously stressful and result in destructive interpersonal conflict. But being alone exposes people to the damaging effects of loneliness and to potential mental breakdown. The social psychological issues are so important that we devote three chapters to them, covering solitude, other people, and teamwork, and page 99 falls in the middle of them.

When an extreme mission is months or years long, it helps to have people around you that you care about and who care about you. Page 99 is part of a section about how couples and families endure extreme environments, including the tale of a unique study of two couples and a family stranded – deliberately – in the Arctic:
In a few cases, whole families have ventured into extreme environments. One example is the Sverdrup 2000 expedition, which consisted of three couples and a two-year-old child. The expedition, which was studied directly by psychologists, provides a rare opportunity to compare a team’s contemporaneous weblog account with a detailed psychological assessment.

The 1999-2000 expedition was intended to mark the centenary of Norwegian explorer Otto Sverdrup’s journey from Norway to Canada. It was the brainchild of adventurers Graeme and Lynda Magor, who believed that Sverdrup’s achievements should be brought to a wider audience. (Conspiracy theorists believed there was another reason for the trip: the team was made up of couples who were supposedly destined to keep the human race going in case the Millennium marked the end of civilization.) The plan was to retrace Sverdrup’s footsteps. They would overwinter, locked in ice in Hourglass Bay off the coast of Ellesmere Island, and then, once the weather improved, travel north by sledge to Bukken Fjord in Inuit territory.
The Magors and their two year old daughter Kezia were joined by two other couples. The entire team was studied by psychologists who, at NASA’s behest, were gathering data on how couples cope on long-duration missions, in light of a possible manned mission to Mars.

Through questionnaires and interviews, the psychologists built up a picture of how they coped. Potential polar bear attack and the near-crushing of their boat in the ice caused anxiety and fear. But the greatest source of stress turned out to be lack of privacy between (though not within) the couples. The presence of the toddler also caused tension. One man complained of being forced to endure Kezia’s tantrums (even in the Arctic, it seems, you can’t escape the ‘terrible twos’), and others thought the girl distracted her parents from team tasks.

Despite the stress, the team was happier much more often than it was miserable, and overall they all – including little Kezia - coped extremely well. And this is one of the key messages of the book: that no matter how stressful and challenging extreme environments are, people do tend to cope well and often emerge much stronger and more resilient as a result of their tough experiences.
Learn more about the book and authors at the official Extreme website.

--Marshal Zeringue