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Blog 9: Space a challenge of mind and body

Context: Life that has adapted to survive on Earth faces many challenges in lengthy space travel.

The lack of gravity, higher levels of radiation and disruption of circadian rhythm are just a few of the issues. The human body is a complex ecosystem. Prolonged space travel impacts not just the structural components of the body but the biome supporting optimal function. In low gravity environments fluids preferentially collect about the head causing decreased size of the pituitary gland, hippocampus, and frontal lobe.

Studies show, that many basic mental abilities like attention span, task switching, bodily co-ordination and problem solving are more challenging in space. Any low exercise environment is likely to be affect human performance. Even on Earth, heavily restricting a person’s physical activity reduces mental capabilities over time.

Astronauts’ experience episodic flashes of light at the corner of their eyesight. This experience is believed to be caused by exposure to high levels of cosmic radiation. The long-term effects of radiation on people engaged in extended journeys in space are unknown.

Sleep patterns in space are disrupted. Prolonged sleep deprivation is known to cause significant cognitive and mental health issues.

Purpose: To consider the challenge to the human mind from prolonged space travel.


As we fall into sleep, our brain stays active. The brain undertakes its editing process—deciding which memories to keep and which ones to toss.

Rapid eye movement (or REM) sleep was discovered in 1953. Along with the engorgement of sexual organs during REM, virtually all vivid dreaming takes place in the REM phase of sleep.

Psychosis is characterized by hallucinations and delusions. In dreaming, we readily accept apparently incongruous or illogical experiences as being real. This suggests that we are literally mad during the dream state!

REM sleep is ruled by the limbic system—a deep region of our brain where some of our most savage and base instincts arise. The limbic system is believed to be responsible for our sex drive, aggression, fear, joy, and love.

In our dream state, no matter how absurd the experience, we believe that we are awake. Some believe that humans are most intelligent, insightful, creative, and unencumbered when dreaming. Given the almost limitless experiences possible in our dreams, why do we bother to wake up?

The answer probably is, we need to attend to the basics of life—the eating, mating, and fighting … so that the body is fully ready for our next sleep.

Interestingly, sleep issues, such as insomnia and narcolepsy, increase the risk of experiencing vivid dreams.

So how might prolonged space travel impact the human mind?

· It is likely that sleep patterns will be disrupted

· Low gravity with affect brain tissue

· Confusion between real and dreamed experiences may arise

· Relationship dynamics could become more extreme

· Cosmic radiation is a major unknown risk factor

How important is vigorous exercise for health in space?

Exercise in simulated gravity is likely to be critical to mental and physical health. Gravity can be simulated by creating centrifugal force. A structure with a 50-metre radius spinning at 100km/hr is required to approximate earth like gravity. Hydraulic and magnetic resistance equipment can also be used to work the body. Without doubt, regular and vigorous exercise will be essential to sustain physical and mental health.

What about sex in space?

Just like exercise, enjoyable sexual experiences provide important mental health benefits and must be contemplated for prolonged space travel.

What role can advanced virtual reality play in maintaining a health human in space?

Will advanced virtual reality experiences blur reality with imagined experiences? Current research involving rats suggests otherwise. It is believed that our brains need to associate other experiences, including movement to believe a certain experience is real. It is quite likely that realistic simulated experiences with immersive smell, feel, motion and sound will be developed that might blur boundaries. On any prolonged space mission, these kinds of enjoyable experiences that connect people to their origins may be important.

Cosmic radiation affects cognitive capability. It is believed that cosmic radiation can damage neurons causing dementia and fogginess like symptoms. Radiation might pose a serious challenge to mental health of humans during prolonged space journeys.


· Sleep disruption

· Effects of low gravity

· High degree of virtual or synthesised imagery

· Radiation,

it is easy to imagine confusion, delusion, and dysfunction of astronauts posing a risk to the mission.

Could robots with advanced learning algorithms be a better option?

The rovers on Mars today are robots with the ability to receive instructions from people on Earth. The time to transmit instructions is a serious limitation. The combination of a high level of autonomous response programming and advanced learning algorithms might make sending robots a safer and less expensive option than sending a manned spacecraft.

Today, in industrial settings on Earth, advanced robotic or remotely controlled machinery are being used to reduce the cost and risk from placing a human onboard.

The great challenge for machine intelligence is the ability to imagine. Many argue that machines will never be able to imagine like humans can.

Advances in human understanding begin with someone imagining a concept or theory. We then use mathematical models and data to validate what we imagined might be true. Today, advanced learning algorithms still have a long way to go before they can be considered imaginative.

The incentive to develop smart robots for space travel is great. Machines will not be as susceptible to radiation, low gravity, sleep deprivation and the amenity challenges of humans. In 2021, @elonmusk announced a program to develop a Tesla Bot. Elon expects that this robot will be capable of doing many repetitive tasks, including doing the grocery shopping.

A few more things to consider:

· Humans can reproduce offspring from test tube conception.

· Artificial wombs have made to nurture pre-mature animals

· Growth to adulthood can be accelerated in animals

· The information in our brains will be able to be uploaded to the cloud one day


Prolonged space travel might need to be machine lead. Humans, or other earth creatures, could be created in when the situation is right.

2101: Spark of Hope explores the dichotomy of wanting to project humanity into the universe and the benefits of machines.

Some interesting quotes:

“Mars has been flown by, orbited, smacked into, radar examined, and rocketed onto, as well as bounced upon, rolled over, shovelled, drilled into, baked and even blasted. Still to come: Mars being stepped on.” – Buzz Aldrin.

“NASA's next urgent mission should be to send good poets into space so they can describe what it's really like.”- Shannon Hale.

“I don’t think the human race will survive the next thousand. years, unless we spread into space. There are too many accidents that can befall life on a single planet. But I’m an optimist. We will reach out to the stars.”– Stephen Hawking.

“Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.”– Albert Einstein.

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