Out of the cave: French isolation study ends after 40 days

by Joseph K. Clark

After 40 days in voluntary isolation, 15 people participating in a scientific experiment have emerged from a vast cave in southwestern France

French isolation

After 40 days in voluntary isolation in a dark, damp, and vast cave, eight men and seven women who took part in a scientific experiment emerged Saturday from their self-segregation in the Pyrenees.

With big smiles on their pale faces, the 15 participants exited the Lombrives cave to a round of applause and basked in the light of day while wearing special glasses to protect their eyes after so long in the dark. “It’s hot!” said one.

For 40 days and 40 nights, the group lived in and explored the cave without a sense of time. There were no clocks and no sunlight inside, where the temperature was 10 degrees Celsius (50 F), and the relative humidity stood at 100%. The cave dwellers had no contact with the outside world, no updates on the pandemic, or any communication with friends and family above ground.

In partnership with labs in France and Switzerland, scientists monitored the 15-member group’s sleep patterns, social interactions, and behavioral reactions via sensors. One of the sensors was a tiny thermometer inside a capsule that participants swallowed like a pill. The capsules measure body temperature and transmit data to a portable computer until they are expelled naturally.

The team members followed their biological clocks to know when to wake up, go to sleep and eat. They counted their days not in hours but in sleep cycles. On Friday, scientists monitoring the participants entered the cave to let the research subjects know they would be coming out soon. They said many of the people in the group miscalculated how long they had been in the cave and thought they had another week to 10 days to go.

“It’s exciting to observe how this group synchronizes themselves,” project director Christian Clot said in a recording done from inside the cave. He said that working together on projects and organizing tasks without setting a time to meet was incredibly challenging.

Although the participants looked visibly tired, two-thirds of them expressed a desire to remain underground a bit longer to finish group projects started during the expedition, Benoit Mauvieux, a chronobiologist involved in the research, told The Associated Press.

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