Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Maurizio Montalbini, Cave Man

Always on the lookout for interesting jobs, not to mention always on the lookout for interesting obituaries, I stumbled on an article in The Wall Street Journal on one Maurizio Montalbini, sociologist turned researchee for those "studying the effects of isolation on circadian rhythms, the immune system and human psychology."

To do so, Montalbini went underground, deep underground, in caves in the Apennine Mountains.

So we're not just talking isolation, we're pretty much talking desolation.

There he lived on "pills and powders and other astronaut fare", supplemented by honey, chocolate, and walnuts. But he sure didn't go overboard here - for one subterranean jaunt, which lasted 235 days, Montalbini's goody bag contained, according to the death notice in the (UK) Telegraph, "four kilos of honey, two kilos of walnuts, and one and a half kilos of chocolate."

I don't know about anyone else but, while those four kilos of honey may have lasted me those 235 days, those 4.4 pounds of walnuts of underground noshing might have stood me for a couple of months max. And 3.3 pounds of chocolate?I'm guessing I would have been hitting the wrapper a bit harder than Maurizio. No wonder he lost 30 pounds during one of his stays.

Smoking two packs of cigarettes each day may also have helped trim the weight off, too. (And no doubt accelerated his early death - Montalbini was only 56 when he died of a heart attack.)

Montalbini set a personal record - 366 days in a cave - in 1992-1993, and used some of his research to help those suffering from sleep disorders and stress, using techniques he called "Under-Therapy."

Among the curious findings of extended isolation: the clock goes cuckoo, and people need less sleep, not to mention that they underestimate how much time they've been out of it. After 210 days, Montalbini estimated that he'd been gone 79 days; after 366 days, he guessed 216. (No wonder they don't have windows, or clocks on the walls, in Las Vegas.)

Results of the tests that Montalbini guinea-pigged for were used by NASA, and by university scientists studying circadian cycles, among other things. And he wasn't just a cave man.

Caves were not Mr. Montalbini's only laboratory. In 1990, long before reality television, he emulated Robinson Crusoe as a simulated shipwreck survivor on an island in the Adriatic. A year later, he spent 48 days adrift in a rescue raft testing survival techniques and satellite mapping gear.

His last long journey to the center of the earth was in 2006, when he logged 235 days down under, after which he swore off long-term spelunking, saying "I used to dream about dawn."

I'm guessing he used to dream about warmth two: the caves were 50 degrees. Brrrrrr. I like to sleep cold, but...

Although I would never actually do something like this, I must admit that, since childhood, I have had the Robinson-Crusoe-top-of-Mt.-Washington-escape-to-the-attic daydream, and have packed my mental bags on many an occasion. And they definitely contained more than a kilo and  half of chocolate. Plus lots of books, crossword puzzles, and sudoku.

But those mental bags also included a debate about whether to have my appendix removed before I decided to strand myself. And fretting about what would happen if I broke a tooth on, say, a walnut. Not to mention thinking about how terrible it would be to come up from under and realize that I'd missed out on a lot of news. Good and bad - I wouldn't want to be away for either. Although I wouldn't mind a wee bit less tea-bagger ranting, and speculation about whether Gisele Bundchen is Tom Brady's Yoko Ono, I'd prefer to find out sooner rather than later what Molly named her dog, and how Caroline feels about her bedroom makeover.

Ah, just when I think I have an alternate profession lined up for myself, I realize that, as compelling as the fantasy might be, I'm just not all that cut out for the isolation chamber.

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