How Cognitive Sciences Can Ease Life in Space


by Emma Barratt

How Cognitive Sciences Can Ease Life in Space

As we prepare to put humans on Mars, Emma Barratt tells us more about the increasingly important role of cognitive sciences in Human Factors research. 

Keeping astronauts healthy is not just about keeping their vital signs in check. Making sure they perceive their environment as clearly as possible, that they are in good mental health, and that they can withstand the physical stresses on their brains in microgravity are all vital pieces of the puzzle. 

All of these things fall within the realms of cognitive sciences, but rarely spring to mind if someone mentions space relevant psychology or neuroscience. It is most likely that you are familiar with research that focuses on astronaut isolation, coping with extreme environments, or crew cohesion during long-haul missions. 

But that is far from the whole story. Today, I want to give you a tour of exciting new ways in which cognitive scientists are helping astronauts thrive in space.

This is Your Brain on Microgravity

Here on Earth, your body is in a constant battle with gravity to pull its fluids up and away from the ground. But in microgravity, where that downward gravitational pull is no longer present, it takes our bodies a little while to get used to the change.

You will often see new arrivals on the ISS with full faces and thin legs. Affectionately known as ‘Puffy-face-chicken-leg Syndrome’, this is caused by the body pulling fluids away from the legs and towards the head as it would under Earth’s gravity. Typically, it takes a few days for the bodies of our astronauts to redistribute fluids more evenly again. Except, it seems, for cerebrospinal fluid.

In microgravity, cerebrospinal fluid pools underneath the brain, pushing it up against the top of the skull, and squashing the eyeballs forward to accommodate it. Researchers have dubbed this phenomenon Spaceflight-Associated Neuro-ocular Syndrome, or SANS for short.

But it is not just that physical squashing is an issue. Research has shown that this phenomenon also alters the brain structure. With structural changes in the brain, we often see differences in the ways we perceive and process information. Studies suggest SANS can be linked to changes in cognitive and motor functioning, visual deterioration, as well as balance once astronauts return on Earth. 

Thankfully, it seems this may not be too much of an issue as we aim for longer missions. Though having your brain pushed to the top of your skull is not ideal, preliminary data shows that similar to puffy-face-chicken-legs syndrome subsiding after a few days, SANS seems to gradually resolve over the course of months. Of course, more research will be needed to determine the as of yet unknown problems SANS may pose.

Manufacturing Senses

As capable as astronauts are, there is a limit to the amount of information that the human brain can take in at any one moment. Similarly, there are some things – like radiation levels – that we cannot sense. In the upcoming years, cognitive scientists could potentially enable astronauts to have new senses. 

Being fed a large amount of information through one sensory modality can be overwhelming. As crew becomes increasingly more independent from ground control on interplanetary missions, technology that can lighten their cognitive load is going to be important. 

Recent research from academics at Stanford University has produced wearable technology (known as VEST) that translates information into tactile patterns on the skin using vibrating motors. With practice, users come to associate these varying patterns with increasingly complex information. 

For example, VEST technology has been used to help deaf people ‘hear’ their surroundings. The technology ‘translates’ noises in the environment to distinct patterns of vibration that are distributed across an area of skin, with different types of sound being translated into different patterns. With input and enough practice, those unable to hear themselves come to associate those patterns with the sounds that created them, building a sensory bridge between themselves and their environment that did not previously exist, and thus allowing them to ‘hear’.

Such technology could prove useful for communicating information to astronauts during missions. Applying technology like this to space suits may in future enable us to keep our astronauts fully and intuitively informed about environmental dangers such as radiation levels, without demanding a large portion of their attention.

A Good Night’s Sleep

Astronauts on the ISS see 16 sunrises a day. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they try to ignore this, and keep an Earth-like 24-hour sleep cycle during their stay; however, getting quality sleep under such conditions is not easy. Our circadian rhythms – daily biological cycles which regulate sleep and rest – are heavily influenced by environmental factors, such as light.

At different times of the day, we are exposed to different wavelengths of light, which our brains use to guess what time is and how wakeful we should be. But being exposed to 16 sunrises in one day throws this rhythm off completely, reducing the quality of sleep astronauts get. Research conducted by ESA illustrated just how much of a problem this can be for the crew. They found evidence of ‘sleep-like events’ during waking hours, as well as dipping visuomotor skills when sleep quality was lacking. Recent collaborations with cognitive scientists have resulted in an alteration of the space station to help improve this. 

Namely, the lighting system was changed with one that can mimic the changing wavelengths of light in an Earth-like 24-hour cycle. Using these wavelengths to engineer the correct time-giving cues to the brain – it is expected that this new lighting system will help astronauts get more quality sleep, and be able to get the best possible start to their days.

This is just a glimpse into how cognitive sciences are contributing to the advancement of human space exploration. Beyond these snapshots, NASA’s Human Research Roadmap details hundreds of questions relating to brains, behaviour, and space psychology that we have yet to answer.

Going forward, I would like for our industry to understand the true scope of cognitive sciences research. The somewhat pervasive myth that cognitive sciences start and end with isolation studies and feelings holds us back from exploring some truly exciting ideas. I hope that by showing you some of these technologies and challenges, I have helped dispel that myth, and helped you see the increasingly important role cognitive sciences will play in human spaceflight for years to come.

Emma Barratt is a cognitive sciences researcher and science communicator based in Newcastle, UK. She specialises in atypical psychology, regularly writing about the many ways that brains behave badly. You can find more of her work on cognition and human spaceflight on YouTube via SciShow Space and Scishow Psych, or on Twitter handle @E_Barratt.