Weightlessness could make astronauts worse at recognising emotions in others

By Harriet Piercy

Published Apr 29, 2021 at 01:43 PM

Reading time: 4 minutes

Astronauts feel weightless when there is nothing opposing the force of gravity, unlike the rest of us Earthlings who have their feet firmly drawn by our planet to the ground. Thank goodness! I’m not sure about you, but I don’t fancy a wobbly flap around without anything to hold on to or pull me back into a cosy bed at night. Aside from that, it has also recently been revealed that weightlessness impacts astronauts’ ability to read or connect to their own (and other’s) emotions. Here’s everything you need to know.

Before diving right into this one, let’s chat a little bit about gravity as a whole—so that we can get into the nitty-gritty abstractness of emotional intelligence (with ease), later. A gravitational force is an interaction between objects that have mass. The Earth has mass, and so does an astronaut, so they are attracted to each other.

An astronaut standing on Earth will, like us, have weight. When they are orbiting the Earth, however, there is no ground or continuous force to counteract the force of gravity. This means that the astronauts are essentially falling, but, since the astronauts are moving at incredible speeds—they are falling around the Earth rather than into it.

In space, astronauts and their spaceship will still have mass and are acted upon by Earth’s gravity, so technically they actually still have weight. That being said, they don’t feel their weight because nothing is pushing back on them. To explain it simply, free-falling is defined as “any motion of a body where gravity is the only force acting upon it.” According to an explanation by Harvard University, there are no air molecules or supportive surfaces in the vacuum of space, and so the astronauts are only acted upon by gravity. So, how does a spaceship orbit the Earth without gravity directly pulling it into a crash with Earth?

Spaceships are travelling so quickly in a forward direction that they orbit around Earth, like a ball swinging at the end of a string. Obviously, the further you travel away from Earth, the weaker the strength of its gravity will be. If we’re talking about weightlessness, and how this feels, you’ve got to think about speed in conjunction with gravity. If you are going very fast in an opposing direction to what is gravitationally pulling you towards it—for example, you’re travelling very fast on a rollercoaster, imagine that second of a moment when you’re about to fall—that is what it feels like to be weightless.

Surely no one wants to be in rollercoaster limbo for longer than a second? The novelty of it must wear off, and wear down whoever experiences it. Vom-central if you ask me. And as I am sure you can imagine, the feeling of continuous weightlessness has to have its toll on human bodies, as well as their minds.

The emotional effects of weightlessness on astronauts

BBC Science Focus recently published an ongoing study into how astronauts are emotionally affected by the continuous weightlessness. In the study, a group of 24 participants agreed to spend two months lying in beds that simulated weightlessness to allow scientists to study how it affected their cognitive performance.

Over the course of 60 days, the participants spent all their time (bar 30 minutes a day rest) lying head-down on a bed tilted at a 6 degree angle. The scientists who were conducting the study used NASA’s cognition tests to assess the cognitive performance of real astronauts on the International Space Station. “Participants regularly completed 10 cognitive tests relevant to spaceflight that were specifically designed for astronauts, such as spatial orientation, memory, risk taking and emotion recognition,” said Prof Mathias Basner, from the Department of Psychiatry at the Perelman School of Medicine of the University of Pennsylvania.

Basner continued to explain that “The main goal was to find out whether artificial gravity for 30 minutes each day either continuously or in six 5-minute bouts—could prevent the negative consequences caused by decreased mobility and head-ward movement of body fluids that are inherent to microgravity experienced in spaceflight.”

As a result, the cognitive speed of the participants dropped significantly once they were put into simulated microgravity. Although the speed stayed at the same level throughout the rest of the experiment, they got persistently slower at recognising emotions in other humans as well as themselves, and were more likely to identify facial expressions as “angry, than happy or neutral.”

Now, you wouldn’t want to spend months at a time in a confined space with a handful of faces that you thought were mad at you, would you? Nope. “Astronauts on long space missions, very much like our research participants, will spend extended durations in microgravity, confined to a small space with few other astronauts,” said Basner. “The astronauts’ ability to correctly ‘read’ each other’s emotional expressions will be of paramount importance for effective teamwork and mission success. Our findings suggest that their ability to do this may be impaired over time.”

This research is still at the early stages of development, and there is a lot to experiment with—such as the fact that the participants being studied are simultaneously in isolation while experiencing the weightless environment, which could in turn affect their ability to correctly dissect emotion. Thankfully, future studies are already underway.

Humanity has quite literally leaped and bounded towards where it has arrived to today in regards to space travel, to think of the pace of innovation in seriousness becomes quite overwhelming, but aweing. The first manned mission, Apollo 11, was only in 1969. On this note, it’s time to pay tribute to those three crew members who took the first ever leap around our Moon.

Apollo 11 crew member, Michael Collins, dies aged 90

One of the three crew members of the Apollo 11—Earth’s first manned mission to land on the Moon—Michael Collins died yesterday, 28 April, at the age of 90 after his battle with cancer. Collins himself had actually stayed in lunar orbit to man the craft as his colleagues Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. Aldrin, 91, is now the only surviving member of the mission.

Armstrong and Aldrin were cast into the peak of attention for the historic first landing in 1969, but Collins was just as important for the success of the mission. He was the command module pilot, and performed the crucial manoeuvres in space that were needed to get to the moon. Speaking at launchpad 39A, where the crew’s rocket began the historic mission, he described how he felt during take-off. “The shockwave from the rocket power hits you,” Collins told Nasa TV. “Your whole body is shaking. This gives you an entirely… different concept of what power really means.”

“You’re suspended in the cockpit… as you lift off,” he continued. “From then on it’s a quieter, more rational, silent ride all the way to the Moon.” All while weightless, a feeling I can only imagine to describe as slow, bodily disperse.

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