The Arts

The psychology of The Martian

THE MARTIAN HAS HIT CINEMAS, bosomed by director Ridley Scott and Matt Damon as the man on Mars—it’s made some splashes. The film enjoyed the juicy publicity that came with NASA’s recent announcement of liquid water on the surface of Mars. Exciting stuff. Days earlier NASA dangled this “major discovery” as a big secret, so of course guesses took the tone of: “@NASA Have you found Matt Damon?”

Since its release the film has fared well with critics. It’s also drawn a resounding nod from people of science—including NASA, who screened it to astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Only mildly sci-fi, The Martian has been praised for its scientific accuracy. And appropriately so.

Andy Weir, author of the 2011 novel The Martian, backed his writing with meticulous and thorough research. Ridley Scott followed suit. Across the film’s production NASA answered hundreds questions on both the theoretics and the mise-en-scène of space travel. (NASA’s cooperation was incentivised by the film’s potential as a piece of marketing).

So while the astrophysics, chemistry, technology, nutrition and botany of the film are thoughtfully grounded in actual science, how close to the mark did The Martian land on the psychology of space exploration?

— The mind of the Martian —

Damon as the astronaut Mark Watney is left stranded on Mars. He has no clear way to communicate with his Earth-bound crew, nor with NASA, so must rely only on himself and his spaceman cunning to stay alive—aptly, by “science[ing] the shit out of this”.

Think Apollo 13 meets Castaway meets Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.

Immediately, Watney is faced with the psychological menace: There is no hope and he will eventually die. Logistics of survival are all drastically against him. He has a cold invitation to sit and wait, until he starves to death.

The abandonment factor would’ve also really drilled this. Humans are very social creatures — social rejection has actually been shown to activate some of the same areas of the brain that physical pain does. Although you could tell yourself that the crew acted reasonably and responsibly, it would be difficult to shake the biting thought: They left me to die on Mars.

Emotional thoughts like this, especially if left to fester, have the power to overrun rational behaviour.

Matt Damon counts the days. The Martian.

Mark Watney counts the days in The Martian.

In saying all this, it’s not impossible for someone to pull themselves up in a bad situation, as Watney managed to do.

“People have been able to keep it together mentally before,” under extreme circumstances, such as being prisoners of war, says Al Holland, a senior operational psychologist at NASA. “We know that humans can be very resilient. One thing humans do very well is adapt.”

Adaptation is the key point here.

Watney sees the funny side to being stranded on Mars. He uses humour to reshape his tragic situation. In part, this works as a defence mechanism, deflecting feelings of doom and helplessness. But humour can also mean looking at something from a different perspective.

In The Martian, Watney thinks outside the box. This might not be because he has a sense of humour, but humour does appear to prompt him. The film is notched with instances in which Watney is able to flexibly rework a problem and solve it with an innovative (and cinematic) solution.

Ripping open your space suit to use as a source of propulsion is something that could’ve only started out as a joke.

Watney also crack jokes to his video log. In fact, his conversations with the video log may have actually held therapeutic value. For Watney, the log becomes somewhat of an imaginary companion, one to confide in and to celebrate with. If he needs to talk about anything, or just talk, the log is there to listen.

In the past, sailors on long solo trips have been known to anthropomorphise inanimate objects, or begin referring to themselves as ‘we’, in what appears to be a coping mechanism against their isolation. Tom Hanks had this going on with Wilson. It’s another example of working with what you have to psychologically adapt to a situation.

Essentially, Mark Watney had something in him that let him adapt, deal with Mars, and so become The Martian.

— The Right Stuff —

Prior to their departure from Earth the crew of Ares III each spent ten days alone in a small room—a training exercise for the 150-300 day journey ahead. Afterwards, a psychologist of NASA spoke one-on-on with the six crew members to get a feel of the effect this had on them. The consult took the form of a punchy marketing video, teasing the release of the film.

Ares archive: The Right Stuff

Ares archive: The Right Stuff

Overall the thrust of the piece is that these astronauts have the right stuff. Mark Watney smiles at the face of danger and Mission Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) is thoroughly on the ball.

The consult isn’t taken very seriously. Nor is the psychologist, who does seem like a bit of a tosser. Brandishing a pen, snapping your fingers to get someone’s attention and challenging the confidence of the first woman to command a mission aren’t generally the badges of a very good psychologist. The message we get is that the right stuff these astronauts have is right enough. They’re made of hearty stock, and it’s enough to leave behind the question of psychological support as laughably irrelevant.

The Martian left that psychologist where he was—not in the movie. And for the stretch of the film it’s the last we hear of anything of the sort.

Indeed, it is true that prospective astronauts spend time with psychologists before heading out to space. For the sake of the situation an astronaut must be mentally capable and healthy. There is also a chance that an otherwise healthy spaceperson might turn sour once they’re up there, as a reaction to the extreme novelty of space travel.

— The final frontier —

Space has a weirdness that takes its toll on the astronaut. Psychologists of NASA and other agencies know this well.

Aboard the ISS and the Mir space station, astronauts over time have been observed to become withdrawn from Mission Control. Communication drops and crew members begin to displace the blame and tension among themselves onto to their correspondents back on Earth—sometimes with anger.

Reportedly, the conflicts between the Apollo 7 crew and Mission Control were so severe that the astronauts never flew again.

Anxiety and depression are also common. Motivation wanes and becomes inconsistent. Task performance drops. Stifled astronauts become prone to mood swings and all this stirs tension between crew members, which can be especially exacerbated on vessels like the ISS, where crewmembers come from varied and sometimes clashing cultural backgrounds. (See: Kanas, N; Manzey, D. 2008)

Sometimes the isolation of space travel can be made all the worse. In 2007, while living aboard ISS, astronaut Daniel Tani was informed by Mission Control that his mother had been killed in a car accident. In 2004, Michael Fincke missed the birth of his child. (See: Anderson, 2015).

Astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson - Jessica Chastain's source of inspiration - gazing down onto Earth aboard the ISS. (Photo: NASA)

Astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson gazing down onto Earth aboard the ISS. Jessica Chastain has said that Dyson was a source of inspiration for her role in The Martian. (Photo: NASA)

In The Martian we have a similar difficult scene. The crew are months away from returning to Earth when Mission Control break it to them that Watney is still alive—that they left him there. It’s rough news and the crew are left shocked and guilt-ridden. But NASA doesn’t appear to do much by way of consolation.

On such a long journey (record breaking, by today’s standards), it’s difficult to imagine how this might affect a small group of tightly-knit people. Space is already psychologically dangerous enough. Perhaps we could expect health risks such as anxiety and depression to become more likely and of fiercer potency.

Against today’s spaceships, the Hermes does look comfortable. It’s much larger, and artificial gravity is one hell of a selling point. But the crew are undertaking a journey of much greater magnitude than anything humans have done before. Even without the Watney catastrophe, there’s a very real chance things could get hairy.

In recent years, researchers of NASA and other agencies abroad have been conducting simulations of such journeys. Right now there are scientists living inside a small white dome on the slopes of a volcano in Hawaii—it looks a lot like Mars there. They’ve been there for months and aren’t allowed to leave unless they’re wearing a space suit. This is one of a series of simulations under the HI-SEAS program.

From 2007 to 2011, European and Chinese researchers conducted a series of experiments as part of the ‘Mars 500’ mission. The last of these experiments saw six men confined to grounded spaceship for 520 days, simulating what it might be like to make the trip to Mars.

Of course, changes were observed in the faux-astronauts, some of which resembled those discussed earlier, others being less expected.

Over time the crew appeared to display an increase in the homogeneity of their values, becoming more agreeable amongst themselves. They also became more reluctant to express negative interpersonal feelings. Both of these changes are characteristic of what is referred to as ‘groupthink’, a psychological phenomenon in which a group’s desire to maintain group harmony results in irrational decision-making. Basically, no one wants to be the one to say that something is a terrible idea.

I can’t help but think of the Ares III crew: Yes, let’s make a bomb in the space-kitchen and blow up the side of our spaceship. (Although it did work).

For such a long journey, perhaps bringing a psychologist might have been a good idea for The Martian crew. They made room for a botanist.

For more about NASA’s HI-SEAS project, see: Le Voyage dans la Mars. The concept of Menu Fatigue is also discussed, something Mark Watney would no doubt have had to grapple with.

Or for something completely different: How I learned to stop worrying and love the computer.

One thought on “The psychology of The Martian

  1. Pingback: The Psychology of The Martian | Meatballworks

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