Science

Meet the cave dwellers: French volunteers begin unique 40 day experiment

The entrance of the Lombrives cave in Ussat in the south-west of France, where 15 volunteers will spend 40 days as part of a scientific experiment called Deep Time project.
The entrance of the Lombrives cave in Ussat in the south-west of France, where 15 volunteers will spend 40 days as part of a scientific experiment called Deep Time project. © AFP/Georges Gobet

One year after the first Covid lockdown in France, 15 women and men aged between 27 and 50 have voluntarily accepted to live in a confined space for 40 days in a cave in Ariège, in the south-west of France. They are part of a scientific experiment called the Deep Time project, the first of its kind in the world.

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The aim of the experiment is to study the capacity of human beings to adapt to the loss of spatio-temporal reference points, a question raised in particular by the health crisis, explains Christian Clot, the Franco-Swiss leader.

"In an extreme context, with a new way of life, we obviously did not know how to respond to the impacts of these changes as a group," said this explorer and founder of the Human Adaptation Institute in September 2020, referring to the Covid lockdowns across the world.

This is how the Deep Time project was born, which started on Sunday 14 March at 8pm (local time) and will last for a period of 40 days.

Without a watch, telephone or natural light, seven men, seven women and Christian Clot himself will also have to get used to the 12 degrees and 95% humidity of the Lombrives cave, generate their own electricity by means of a pedal boat system, and draw the water they need from a depth of 45 metres.

They will be equipped with sensors that will allow a dozen scientists to follow them from the surface.

'A world first'

"This experiment is a world first," says Professor Etienne Koechlin, director of the cognitive and computational neuroscience laboratory at the Ecole normale supérieure (ENS).

"Until now, all missions of this type have been aimed at studying the body's physiological rhythms, but never the impact of this type of temporal disruption on the cognitive and emotional functions of human beings," he says.

Almost a year after the first lockdown in France, Christian Clot and 14 volunteers aged between 27 and 50 will live from 14 March, 2021 in the Lombrives cave in Ariège for 40 days without seeing the light of day or having notion of time.
Almost a year after the first lockdown in France, Christian Clot and 14 volunteers aged between 27 and 50 will live from 14 March, 2021 in the Lombrives cave in Ariège for 40 days without seeing the light of day or having notion of time. © AFP/Georges Gobet

The 14 volunteers -- including a jeweller, anaesthetist, security guard and a rope access technician -- from all over France are taking part in the project on a voluntary basis, without any compensation.

Arnaud Burel, a 29-year-old biologist, agreed to take part in the mission "to get a taste of this timeless life, impossible outside with our computers and mobile phones constantly reminding us of our appointments and obligations," he says.

Four tonnes of equipment

In the cave, one of the largest in Europe, "three separate living spaces have been set up: one for sleeping, one for living and one for carrying out studies on the topography of the place, the fauna and flora in particular," Christian Clot explains.

Four tonnes of equipment were transported so that the 15 volunteers could live independently, he added.

In total, Deep Time required 1.2 million euros in funding: from private and public partners, but especially from the Human Adaptation Institute.

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