The caveman who accidentally invented human chronobiology

A great interview from someone who lived in a cave for months on end:

 You have to understand, I was a geologist by training. In 1961, we discovered an underground glacier in the Alps, about seventy kilometers from Nice. At first, my idea was to prepare a geological expedition, and to spend about fifteen days underground studying the glacier, but a couple of months later, I said to myself, “Well, fifteen days is not enough. I shall see nothing.” So, I decided to stay two months. And then this idea came to me—this idea that became the idea of my life. I decided to live like an animal, without a watch, in the dark, without knowing the time…

There was a very large perturbation in my sense of time. I descended into the cave on July 16 and was planning finish the experiment on September 14. When my surface team notified me that the day had finally arrived, I thought that it was only August 20. I believed I still had another month to spend in the cave. My psychological time had compressed by a factor of two…

Interestingly, during the subsequent experiments I did with other research subjects, all of the people in the caves showed cycles longer than twenty-four hours. In fact, it became common for them to achieve cycles lasting forty-eight hours: They would have thirty-six hours of continuous activity followed by twelve to fourteen hours of sleep. After we made that discovery, the French army gave me lots of funding. They wanted me to analyze how it would be possible for a soldier to double his wakeful activity.

And why we couldn’t do this now:

The experiments in the caves are finished. You can’t do these kinds of experiments any more. When we first did them, I was young, and we took all the risk. Now, there are limitations on researchers. Now you have ethics panels. Let me give you an example. In 1964, the second man after me to go underground had a microphone attached to his head. One day he slept thirty-three hours, and we weren’t sure if he was dead. It was the first time we’d ever seen a man sleep for that long. I thought, okay, I’ll descend into the cave and find out what happened. And then at thirty-four hours, he snored, and we understood he was alive. And then a couple minutes later, he called us at the surface to take his pulse. Today, doctors would have to wake him up because it would be too risky to do otherwise.


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