Deep Time Experiment: Living Isolated In A French Cave For 40 Days
On March 14, 2021, a group of 15 curious and intrepid souls retreated into the depths of Lombrives Cave in the department of Ariège in southwestern France as part of the unique Deep Time experiment. Since Lombrives is a popular tourist attraction this in itself was not unusual. What makes this particular expedition unique, however, is its purpose and intended length. These 15 individuals aren’t tourists or spelunkers, but volunteers in the Deep Time experiment.
The volunteers have agreed to live deep inside the cave for 40 days and nights, without their watches, mobile phones, or any other devices that might connect them with the outside world. They will remain in the cave continuously throughout the duration of this experiment, below the surface of the earth with no exposure to natural light.
The men and women who’ve volunteered for the experiment are between the ages of 27 and 50, come from various geographical and occupational backgrounds, and are all in good physical and mental health.
The broad purpose of the Deep Time experiment is to monitor and analyze the effects of living underground for an extended period on the human mind and body.
Christian Clot is the leader (and a participant) of the unique Deep Time experiment, which began on March 14, 2021 deep in a French cave. (Pintupi / CC BY-SA 4.0)
The Deep Time Experiment: Extreme Environment Effects
This unique and enthralling experiment is the brainchild of French-Swiss explorer (and study participant) Christian Clot, who founded the Institute for Human Adaptation in 2013. Clot says he was inspired to sponsor this project by observing the impact of COVID-19-related isolation on people’s lives.
Clot has a long-standing interest in studying how extreme or unusual environments affect human perception and functioning. He has personally spent time living in some of the harshest climates on earth, where he was exposed to extreme temperature and weather conditions. His Deep Time experiment represents a variation on the same theme, reflecting Clot’s fascination with learning more about how human beings respond and adjust when the parameters of normal experience are dramatically altered.
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“Three separate living spaces have been fitted out, one for sleeping, one for living and one for carrying out studies on the topography of the place, especially the flora and fauna,” Clot told the French publication Le Parisien. The latter activity will help keep study participants mentally active and engaged during the mission, to prevent the impact of mental frustration or sheer boredom from distorting the integrity of the study.
Approximately four tons of living supplies have been stockpiled inside the cave, along with a pedal-driven dynamo that will be used to produce electricity for artificial light. Water will be harvested from the interior of the cave, eliminating the need for it to be pumped or hauled in.
Conditions inside the cave will be cool and damp and not particularly comfortable. The temperature in the living areas will remain at a steady 54 degrees Fahrenheit (12 degrees Celsius), while humidity levels will hover around 95 percent. It will be up to the volunteers to dress accordingly.
Throughout their time underground, the physiological states and reactions of the volunteers will be closely monitored by a team of scientists deployed on the surface near the cave entrance. In the words of the study organizers:
“Clad in sensors, with the most up-to-date research tools at their disposal, participants will undertake a comprehensive and rigorous study protocol to assess how their brains and bodies manage and generate a new time synchronization, space and society.”
As for practical applications, the researchers who’ve joined Clot’s project say the results they obtain could be useful for scientists and engineers involved in the planning of future space missions. Moreover, the Deep Time experiment could be relevant to those who want to know more about the impact of prolonged isolation on submarine personnel and mining teams as well.
Living deep in a cave with no natural light is similar to living in outer space, deep-sea or mining environments and they all affect our biological clock (shown here) and our circadian sleep rhythms. (NoNameGYassineMrabetTalk fixed by Addicted04 / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Previous Extreme Environment Researchers And Focus Points
There have been other experiments that involved people staying underground for extended periods of time. For example, French geologist Michel Siffre spent six months living in a cave in 1972, totally isolated from the outside world with no capacity to keep track of time.
During this and other experiments, he discovered that underground living could cause a significant change in the operations of a person’s circadian cycle, which governs how long someone sleeps and stays awake. Over time Siffre’s waking-and-sleep cycle was gradually elongated, so by the end of his time underground he would be staying awake and active for 36 hours while sleeping for 12 to 14. This change distorted his sense of the passage in time in general, making him believe that much less time had passed than actually had when his associates notified him it was time to leave the cave.
Like most experiments, Siffre’s efforts focused primarily on the biological effects of time distortion and sensory deprivation. But the French Deep Time experiment is far more comprehensive in its goals and areas of focus.
The Deep Time research team will study the combined impact of timelessness and sensory deprivation on:
· Cognition. How does the brain conceive and experience time, and how will that conception change and evolve as this unique experiment unfolds?
· Psychology. How will people be affected psychologically by limited sensory input, time distortions, and spending extended time with strangers is a confined environment?
· Epigenetics. Will prolonged exposure to an enclosed environment cause changes in genetic expression and activity?
· Chronobiology. What effect will living underground continuously have on sleep rhythms and physiological functioning in general?
· Sociology and Ethology. How will the study participants organize themselves, socially and spatially?
“This experiment is a world first,” explained neuroscientist Etienne Koechlin of the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, during an interview with the Belgian news site 7sur7. “Until now, all missions of this type focused on the study of the physiological rhythms of the body, but never on the impact of this type of temporal rupture on the cognitive and emotional functions of the human being.”
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The scope of this study is wide and ambitious and reflects a truly broad range of research interests. The Deep Time experiment is being supported by multiple research institutes and laboratories in France, Switzerland, China, and additional European nations, which will be sharing data and the results of their analyses for the benefit of the entire scientific community.
For millennia, monks and other spiritual seekers have used cave environments to find deep tranquility and eternal wisdom. (Sutipond Stock / Adobe Stock)
The History Of Seeking Timeless Wisdom In Dark, Quiet Places
While this isn’t mentioned by Clot or the scientists involved in the experiment, the results it produces could also be highly relevant for those who study (or are fascinated by) altered states of consciousness.
In ancient Greece (and China), sages, seers, oracles, and even philosophers frequently retreated into caves for prolonged sessions of contemplation. They relied on the sensory deprivation and sense of timelessness to modify or redirect their conscious awareness in ways that would give them access to divine wisdom, prophetic images, or hidden metaphysical truths.
Meanwhile, many scholars and researchers (like South African archaeologist David Lewis-Williams) who’ve scrutinized the geometrical and abstract imagery in Paleolithic cave art are convinced it emerged from perceptions associated with profound shifts in conscious states. These changes were caused primarily by the ingestion of hallucinogens but were deepened by the sensory deprivation experienced inside caves (hence the choice of that environment for the paintings).
If any of the participants in this new study report strange dreams, hallucinations, or visionary experiences of any types, researchers and adventurers who explore altered states of consciousness will certainly take notice.
Top image: The 15 volunteers in the Deep Time experiment, including chief researcher Christian Clot, just before they descended into the French cave on March 14, 2021 for 40 days of extreme isolation. Source: Christian Clot
By Nathan Falde