What's Happens To Your Brain When You're Trapped In A Dark Cave?

What's Happens To Your Brain When You're Trapped In  A Dark Cave?

Thinking about the soccer team trapped in a dark cave, perhaps for weeks or even months, I recalled being fascinated by research on light deprivation and other effects of isolation during my brief time as a sophomore psychology major. I discovered much has been learned in the intervening years. Here is a summary.

Biological Effects

Thai Coach and Team Members
Norepi­nephrine, dopamine, and serotonin are necessary for us to experience pleasure, emotion, and cognition. These neurotransmitters are produced by neurons that require light to remain healthy and survive. As these neurons decay, we become depressed and can develop psychotic disorders. Our circadian rhythm is distorted; there are reports of people sleeping 30 hours and reporting they just took a brief nap. 

Hallucinations are common as the brain, lacking external stimuli, produces its own stimulation. BBC produced several videos of people experiencing hallucinations during 48 hours in darkness. 

After about three weeks without light, many people experience psychogenic death and are at risk of committing suicide. 

In 1972 Michel Siffre spent six months in a cave without natural light. He did have artificial light, a tent on a wooden platform, and other support that would be available during space travel (the purpose of the NASA-sponsored experiment). The experiment was designed to eliminate any clues about the passage of time to determine what happens to one's biorhythms in the absence of external markers of the passage of time.

Of course, sleep cycles became erratic as expected but other effects were more surprising. His psychological state greatly deteriorated and he was deterred from suicide only by concern for its effect on his survivors. During his third month, his short term memory had deteriorated so much that he forgot things in mere seconds. Years after the experiment Siffre still had lapses of memory and his eyesight remained deteriorated. It's not clear that he ever fully recovered from the ordeal.

Literally, all the Chilean miners trapped underground for more than two months in 2010 suffered from PTSD. Some of the miners offered advice to the soccer team awaiting rescue: Stay hopeful, maintain a positive attitude, don't dwell on the negative prospects, maintain a routine organizing your resources, and standing guard while others sleep. Several miners commended the soccer coach, Ekkapol Chantawong, for leading meditation sessions and encouraging the team to be optimistic. 

Groups of stranded people trapped without natural light have difficulties not affecting individuals trapped alone. The group must maintain a common circadian rhythm. When the sleep cycles of people in a group drift apart, individual sleep can be disrupted increasing interpersonal conflict, exacerbate stress, and degrades the immune system encouraging infections and illness (recall that the soccer team lived nine days in total darkness prior to being discovered).

As I write this, five people are still in the cave with monsoon rains building. News reports are inconsistent regarding the coach; some sources say the coach was among the first four rescued due to his weak condition, other sources say he is one of the five yet to be rescued. The identity of the rescued individuals has not been officially released. 

It is possible that one or more of the remaining individuals may need to rely on an alternative means of rescue. Among the prospects are Elon Musk's drilling efforts, his rush to fabricate a small submarine pod using parts from a Falcon 9 -- an oxygen transfer tube, and an inflatable tube that could be threaded through the narrow passages. 

Tiny Passages Complicate the Rescue

Among the alternatives, the small submarine gets my bet as an alternative backup rescue device. The pod has handles on the front and rear, is light enough to be carried when free from the water, is small enough to navigate the cave, and is large enough to accommodate the team members (I was unable to determine if it is a prospective solution for the coach should he still be in the cave).




  1. Once again, you have my attention, my appreciation for your narrative, research and contribution to help us understand things a bit beyond our comprehension. Thank you, Rick......you rock!

  2. P.s. This may be my last comment ( I need special tutoring with "select all squares which have roads"). Am I smarter than a robot? You decide!