December 9, 2011

An international research team of scientists, philosophers and humanities scholars is preparing to go where none have dared before to study the effects of outer space travel on the inner space of experience.

Led by researchers from the Institute for Simulation & Training (IST), the Department of Philosophy and the College of Medicine, the study will attempt to answer the question, “Why do astronauts and other space travelers consistently describe their experiences as aesthetic, spiritual or religious?”

This will be the first-ever scientific study of these experiences as it attempts to link philosophy and the humanities with cognitive and neural sciences.

The John Templeton Foundation, a philanthropic organization dedicated to “supporting science – investing in the Big Questions,” will fund the two-year, $300K effort. Principal Investigators include: Shaun Gallagher and Stephen Fiore (Philosophy/IST), Bruce Janz (Philosophy), Stephanie Lackey, Lauren Reinerman and Eileen Smith (IST), and Garrett Riggs (College of Medicine, Neurology).

The various team members will (1) analyze astronaut reports in detail, (2) select NASA photographs for use in experiments, (3) compare astronaut experiences to those created in a virtual environment, (4) measure effects on physiology and brain changes, (5) study precisely the environmental conditions present, and (6) show how all these factors are interrelated.

Since setting up a lab in a corner of the International Space Station is out of the question, researchers will design and build a virtual environment at IST. The Virtual Space Lab (VSL) will be a test bed for experiments that will attempt to recreate the awe and wonder space travelers experience.

Researchers from the Bildakt research group at Humboldt University (Berlin) will study the specific images from the NASA archive to be used in the VSL. UCF’s Bruce Janz and Shaun Gallagher and philosophy graduate students from the University of Memphis will do the hermeneutical (textual) analysis and post-experiment interviews with subjects.

On the experimental side, three labs from IST will collaborate to design and run experiments that explore the experiences of participants in the VSL. Stephanie Lackey and Lauren Reinerman will direct the work of IST’s ACTIVE lab, Eileen Smith will manage her E2i lab’s participation and Stephen Fiore the Cognitive Sciences Lab’s contribution.

The team will use near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) technology to study brain processes and subjective reactions of participants in the VSL. Dr. Garrett Riggs from the UCF College of Medicine and Dr. Jonathan Cole from the University of Bournemouth (UK) will provide neuroscientific support.