French volunteers leave cave after 40-day isolation experiment

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A group of 15 French volunteers on Saturday left a cave where they had stayed for 40 days, in an experiment probing the limits of human adaptability to isolation.

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Dazzled by the light and with pale faces but otherwise healthy, the group led by French-Swiss explorer Christian Clot emerged at around 10:30 am (0830 GMT) from the Lombrives cave in Ariege, southwest France.

The underground isolation experiment saw the subjects, aged between 27 and 50, give up watches, phones and natural light, exchanging modern comforts for a cave system with a constant 12 Celsius (54 Fahrenheit) temperature and 95 percent humidity.

Members had to generate their own electricity with a pedal bike and draw water from a well 45 meters below the earth.

Clot, founder of the Human Adaptation Institute, had said the so-called “Deep Time” experiment would test humans’ ability to adapt to the loss of their frame of reference for time and space.

Such questions have gained urgency given the widespread isolation people have experienced during the coronavirus pandemic.

But while some researchers joined the project, other scientists criticized the setup of the experiment.

Etienne Koechlin, head of the cognitive neuroscience lab at France’s prestigious ENS graduate school, said the research was “ground-breaking”.

Data on participants’ brain activity and cognitive function were gathered before they entered the cave, for comparison with their levels after they left.

But like other experts, Pierre-Marie Lledo of the CNRS government research center and the Institut Pasteur noted that there was no “control group” in the experiment.

Comparing an unaffected group with those making changes is usually a vital component in scientific studies.

The volunteers plan to give a press conference later Saturday about their experience.

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