Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog

Wouldn’t you think that NASA would use the most rigorous psychological test to screen for tough minds in potential astronauts? How then does the soap-opera-esque debacle with astronaut Lisa Nowak (you know, the one in the love triangle who’s been arrested for attempted murder) even come to such a boiling point? That it *did* happen has brought into question NASA’s ability to monitor the psychological state of the people who go into space. In response to increased scrutiny, NASA has promised to review its psych testing practices. The only lucky break in this situation is that Lisa Nowak “snapped” on the ground, rather that in the confines of a space mission.

These tests are far from perfect, and can only really provide an estimation of someone’s mental state rather than an absolutely clear picture. And there exists quite a lot of doubt as to whether people who “pass the test” really make it through stressful situations and cope well enough to validate the tests’ results.

Available tests that claim to identify those personalities that will cope best in stressful situations are not validated, says Peter Marquis, who runs the medical unit at the British Antarctic Survey — another organization that sends people to remote locations for psychologically demanding scientific missions.

The number of people who have been into space or spent significant time in Antarctica is too small for rigorous analysis of the tests, he says. Psychologists can claim to predict who will deal with the challenge, but no one has followed up to see whether they actually came through it unscathed.

Additionally, psychological testing might not flag up problems in advance, simply because these problems might not exist before a given mission. There is evidence to suggest that spaceflight constitutes a significant stress that can alter one’s state of mind — what psychologists call a ‘transformational experience’.

There also seems to be subtle discouragement to seek help (as a NASA astronaut), since doing so may compromise your ability to be called on for another mission. As for Nowak’s actions, its possible that she formed an extremely strong bond with her love interest (a pilot on her mission), in reaction to a space expedition being similar to a life-threatening, life-altering experience.

Comments

  1. #1 ivan
    February 15, 2007

    “As for Nowak’s actions, its possible that she formed an extremely strong bond with her love interest (a pilot on her mission), in reaction to a space expedition being similar to a life-threatening, life-altering experience.”

    As for the reasons why and the conditions under which people fall in love, it is just a metter of mere speculation. I never found my reasons, even less would someone else be able to judge them for me.

  2. #2 nick
    February 15, 2007

    unfortunately it requires you have online access to the globe and mail, but there is an interesting op-ed piece on this from this monday that can be found here.

  3. #3 J-Dog
    February 16, 2007

    Maybe they should have a box that could be checked:

    Are you batshit crazy? X Yes No

    Do you like to wear Depends? X Yes No

  4. #4 Bob Abu
    February 16, 2007

    There could be a reasonable explanation for all the so called “evidence.” For all we know, she could be as innocent as O.J.

  5. #5 Crudely Wrott
    February 18, 2007

    Tests that are designed to screen personality traits are subject to certain laws:

    The reason it’s so hard to make something foolproof is that fools are so ingenious.

    If anything can go wrong it will. (and all Murphy’s Law derivatives)

    There’s no accounting for taste.

    There is an informative essay by Isaac Asimov titled “The Abnormality of Being Normal”. 1956, I think. He presents the idea of the multitude of qualities that people possess and that each quality has a multitude of qualities and when different qualities mix they influence many other qualities an so on . . . One thing that was obvious was that most of us possess most all of the possible traits to some degree, large or small. In other words, most of us has a murderous trait, most of us are capable of some degree of jealousy, stubbornness or panic. The same for any trait that we would call good. To one degree or another we are a mongrel breed when it comes to what traits together make up a human. To one degree or another we do a fair job of coping, I think.

  6. #6 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    February 19, 2007

    Have you read Stranger in a Strange Land by Heinlein?

  7. #7 Redleg
    February 19, 2007

    Even the best made machines break down once in a while, why would humans be any different? Twenty some odd years in the military, IMHO, creates a dependence on discipline and order. Discipline can be founded on a need or the ability to control and affect one’s environment. A few changes which might be beyond the normal zone of control for an individual like this (such as her husband leaving her, a friend’s perceived rejection, etc.) can send a mind over the edge, even if temporarily. For the readers of this board I would urge seeking an explanation as to why before proceeding to the penalty and condemnation phase of her regard. For prosecutors in Florida seeking to earn a name by over-characterizing certain facts in some iconoclastic crusade to destroy this pioneer read my middle finger. We have enough people wiping their arse’s with my constitution, you should be disbarred for releasing ANY of the facts of an ongoing investigation so that you can rush to the characterization of her as a criminal instead of a suspect (also read as ‘public servant in need of some mental health maintenance’).

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