Phone interview One


Janna Kaplan

on spacial


march 9, 2017


F In starting out I wanted to know mostly what your role is at SIRIUS and the Graybiel Lab, and what are the specifics of your research at SIRIUS?

J Mm-hmm (affirmative). Okay, so let me answer those questions. The Graybiel Labs at Brandeis University is part of the neuroscience program. What neuroscience does, we study how brain works comprehensively. Not just what the biochemistry of neurons is, or what is the behavioral issues of adaptation to certain environment, holistically-

F Mm-hmm (affirmative).

J Brains in untouched human body, not in a sample, in an unstrained environment. How does it work in all its complexity. That’s what neuroscience does. We can’t answer that question all by ourselves. We have our own area of expertise, and that area is sensory motor human factors of space flight and analog environments. That means that we’re studying human adaptation to various conditions of space, flight, or any conditions where change affects the environment outside of the human body, or the conditions inside of the human body that are in any way connected with movement, control, with the force of gravity, with forces acting on the body or within the body. That also  includes analog or virtual environments. Environments we can create to approximate different conditions of space flight or any other extreme environment. Now, that’s where there is some intercept with what you’re interested in, because what we do here is it’s really an off-shoot of the Graybiel Labs that I started or founded, or organized around 2010 when NASA decommissioned the shuttle, the last flying shuttle and the shuttle program.

That gave financial boost as well as opened up possibilities for rapid development. Market possibilities for private commercial space flight programs Those programs want to approach space flight not as a totally new environment for which you have to undergo NASA training to have this profound multi-year comprehensive training to be a space flight specialist in every possible space flight situation. What private industry wants is not that. They want people who are specifically trained to a particular task who can just be hired, fly their flight, or few flights, do that task and that’s it. There’s no hullabaloo, there’s no medals, there’s no red carpet. It’s just a job. It’s a job for hire, but the person needs to be trained in the specific features of flight that he or she will be experiencing while doing that task. That’s allowed companies or venues like SIRIUS to be able to train in the narrow, specific area of expertise. I can’t compete with NASA in comprehensive astronaut training, but I have expertise in sensory motor human factors.

That includes interaction with forces and how control of movement changes when the forces change. That includes gravity force, including weightlessness, or artificial gravity, high-G. That includes motion-sickness. That includes movement errors that occur in those conditions, that approximate space flight conditions. That includes spacial orientation or disorientation. Those things aren’t that different from what, for example, other critical environments present, like deep underwater environment. A lot of astronaut training takes place in a water tank, because that’s how the buoyancy in the water can be considered an analog environment for certain features of weightlessness. I guess that’s why Shona connected you with me is because of that overlap. Does that answer your question?

F Definitely. You’re focusing mostly in your research and these interactions of forces with a body, just to be-

J Yeah.

F What kind of processes, you mentioned for instance analog types of environments, but also artificial, what types of processes and criteria have you developed for training?

J Mm-hmm (affirmative). What is known in the field as analog environments are really, you’re right, created artificially created environments. Like I can not, I don’t have a flying vehicle that can create zero-G or high-G, and I can not create an analog for zero-G except in a buoyancy water tank, neutral buoyancy water tank I think it’s called, at NASA, which I don’t have. In, for example, a linear elevator shaft, where I can drop a cabin, an elevator cabin into free fall for certain few seconds or parts of seconds. That zero gravity would be an analog environment for zero-G, but it will be so brief that it can only, through it I can only study, in an elevator drop, I can only study very, very brief initial fractions of seconds of exposure to zero-G, and in a neutral buoyancy tank, I can long experiments, but that zero-gravity is not the exact zero-gravity from the point of view of physics. You can’t have it all. You have to know what the limitations of analog environments are when you go that way.

Somewhere we have to find that balance where we can still do our experiments and people can move, but the motion-sickness has to be minimized to the extent that they can function. We may need analog environment. These are the considerations between what the environment allows and how to take advantage of that, and what it restricts, and what are the constrictions of such environment, and we have to account for that in the experimental design. There is a lot of literature, and you can search online or NASA website on the neutral buoyancy lab, and the studies that they do there, and what type of analog environment it is and how they approximate it as much as they can to the weightless environment of space flight. They do practice space walks there. In terms of the control of movement, there are a lot of similarities in the neutral buoyancy lab, and yet it is not the exact environment. When they do that training, they have to constantly keep that … Take that into account. 

Now, another thing with, for example, diving and my study of spacial orientation, which means how we know how our body is oriented with regard to the three axis of our coordinate system, up and down, right and left, forward and backwards from us. We have sensory systems that do that kind of spacial analysis for us. There are obvious systems like vision and touch. Hearing we do some localization by sound. There are also senses that are not as well known. For example, there’s the whole vestibular system, which is situated in the bone behind our ear, right next to the inner ear, which is part of the auditory system.

The vestibular system actually is not one, but just two senses within that. One is the sense of linear acceleration. The other is the system that detects angular accelerations, accelerations of rotation, and that is called the semi-circular canal. They are two distinct systems that are known as a vestibular system, but they’re not even taught in high school among the five, so-called, senses. Yet, without that system, spacial orientation is severely compromised. What happens to the extent that a person is profoundly disabled, they can not function unless there is full-elimination. They have no way of knowing with their eyes closed if they are lying down or standing up. They have to live with their lights on all the time. They walk like the sailors walk after a long sea voyage, with their feet far apart to have the triangular structure of support between the two legs.

That system is effective during diving, for example. When a person dives, it’s very, and not an experienced diver. It’s hard to know where is your up and where is your down are very hard. Sometimes people get disoriented, and if they don’t have a clear sense … Because of the buoyancy, there is no clear sense of the direction of gravity. On Earth, we have a very clear sense of the direction of gravity, because our weight pulls us down perpendicular to the surface of the Earth. That is our Z-Axis. Our vertical axis. There is no ambiguity here for us. We can jump and run and do somersaults, and ballerinas can do all kinds of weird movements, and yet still know exactly where is up and where is down and how to move and how to recover stability.

In the water, because of the buoyancy, the gravity force feedback is much reduced, and we just don’t have, untrained person wouldn’t have the sensitivity to exactly know where is up and where is down. That’s how disorienting underwater experience is. People need to, in training of divers, there is a lot of emphasis on how to read the whatever signals the body does get from sensory systems, to reconstruct the spacial environment correctly in the earth-centric coordinate system. Keep asking me questions, because I can talk about those things forever.

F I know just what you mean, it’s totally fascinating. I was wondering, as you were speaking there, is there a similar type of disorientation that’s experienced for the people training for space flight in terms of, like, they’re entering in and out of states of having, I’m assuming here, I don’t know very much, but of having gravity as a feeling and then losing that, and how you begin to orient yourself when that happens?

J Yes. That’s a good question. There is, you know the high-G enhances your understanding of you feel for coordinate system, but high-G is not an easy environment to work in. You know, your body weigh is so increased that normal kind of automatic movement control doesn’t work, and there’s tremendous effort in doing simple, routine things. At least we have no ambiguity about spacial orientation of ourselves, of our bodies, and objects around. Micro-gravity is actually more similar to underwater experience, especially weightlessness. In weightlessness, spacial orientation is severely compromised. It’s the same thing. We lose that Z-Axis, the vertical axis information is entirely missing.

We, who evolved through the whole evolution of terrestrial species, and through our individual life experiences, 100% of the time in the Earth gravity field, we don’t have innate ability to switch to the coordinate system that is missing one axis. That Z-Axis is just gone. How do we deal with that? We did some studies of that, and it’s very, it’s not entirely understood, but what is happening, at least in the immediate vicinity, in the body and the immediate vicinity of human body is that we, without fully, without knowing it, we somehow assign that vertical axis to our body midlines. Imagine you have the pencil that you put to your naval, and it kind of sticks out of your stomach at the naval, perpendicular to the flat surface of the abdomen, okay?

F Mm-hmm (affirmative).

J That pencil sticking out of your naval is what is known as body midline. It is a line perpendicular to the flat surface of your abdomen at the naval, which is the projected position of the center of mass of your body. That is an axis that has nothing to do with the Earth. It’s not a geo-centric axis. It is a body-centric axis. It is specific to that particular body, mine or yours, or some Joe-shmo. It is an axis that is individually, proprietarily yours. The right and left, and the fore and aft axis are not changed, but the Z-Axis, which disappears, we subconsciously assign it to that midline axis. It becomes a body, ego-centric coordinate system.

We transition from the geo-centric coordinate system to the egocentric coordinate system without even any awareness that that’s what’s happening. That in and of itself can be, and that is possibly what’s happening underwater as well. That can be a cause for tremendous errors in spacial orientation and it will cause disorientation. It will cause errors in movement control. In critical environments, it’s those errors of disorientation and movement are very dangerous. That is the reason we are trying to study and understand those sensory and motor disturbances of those weird environments.

F Do you do much then with the psychology then of like how people are processing that, or is it more …

J Yeah. We do deal with psychology, so we study, of course, what we can quantify. We design tasks where the person’s responses can be quantitized and measured, and correlated with the forces that effect or lack of forces and other physics of the environment. We also always take subjective reports to see how the disorientation affects the decision-making, how disorientation, or motion-sickness, or errors in judgment of distances and positions of objects, how does that affect the decision-making ability, like I said, in critical environments, these mistakes can be deadly, or can be dangerous in any other way. Ideally, we want to create the training paradigms such that people can be sensitized to the possibility of errors. Then, their decision-making can be an informed decision-making, rather than uninformed, like I said.

We lose the Z-Axis and we’re not aware of that. We make decisions as if nothing happened, where indeed we switched coordinate systems, and that’s a traumatic change in our interaction with an environment. If we can train people to at least understand that they are experiencing a sense of illusion, or that they are experiencing a certain disorientation. Then, they can either postpone the decision until they are more familiar with the environment, or delegate it to somebody who is more in control of the environment, or declare emergency. There are other things that can be done as better informed decisions than continuing as if nothing happened. Do you see what I mean?

F Yeah. It kind of sounds like the dive training that I went through, we talked a lot about safety and the protocols for when one’s body is reacting a certain way, and then went through this training to be really specifically prepared to handle someone else’s situation in tandem with your own when their body, for instance, is having a loss of motor control.

J That is part of the astronaut training is how to recognize in one’s self, and how to recognize in another person within your team, any kind of sensory motor disturbance than can affect safety or performance, and how to modify the decision-making process.

F Mm-hmm (affirmative). You mentioned just a bit ago coming up with quantifiable or measurable tasks based on psychology. I was wondering what some of those were, because things like fear could be like really a subjective things to measure. 

J Well we, we did some studies, because motion-sickness and space motion-sickness in particular, is a big part of our work. In my work, we did some studies of how, for example, fear or anxiety affect the build-up of motion-sickness. The data is interesting, the subjective data is that anxiety and fear is part of the anxiety. Subjective data is overwhelming that anxiety increases the build-up of motion-sickness. Yet, when we actually quantitize it by specific measures of motion-sickness, that there’s no such convincing evidence. That’s an interesting thing, and we are trying to understand that.

Any kind of ... There are triggers, for example, for motion-sickness that have an effect that may be anxiety-related, but indirect. For example, anxiety increases sweating, or increases certain visceral functions, like when we are anxious, we may want to pee. We may want to go to the bathroom more frequently, or we may have salivation, or some other kind of sweating, something that is connected with body excretion of certain substances, which may have a smell. Smell is known to affect the process of motion-sickness. There can be, there are different ways of studying it. That’s just one of the examples, quantifiable research versus subjective assessments.

F  In looking at the subjective and the quantifiable, it sounds like there may be some contradictions at points in time, at least in terms of anxiety and its relation to motion-sickness. Is that common to find, like, discrepancies, or places where things don’t fit or behave as they should seem?

J It’s not possible to make that judgment. The reason is that, you know, we are all living objects, or living creatures. Living systems, nothing is 100%. It’s all about…The majority of effects fall under certain bell, and then there are outliers, and then there’s everything in between. If I were a robot, then I would either do or not do something, or either feel or not feel something, and report it that way. If I were a robot measuring motion-sickness, I will either have it or not. I will either see an object or not see it. In us, there is an individual variability of everything that happens. One person may experiencing something. Another person may have it less of it, the other person can have more of it.

That is what’s known as individual variability. Of all the senses, and they’re all variables. Some people are more keen to sense of touch. Some people are less. Some people lack it through some virile infection they lose the sense of touch. That would be an outlier, because there are very few such people. There is a variability, and that’s within certain parameters of bell-curve. The most variable thing of all sensory responses that we know of is motion-sickness susceptibility. That individual variability is so huge that it is very difficult to relate or correlate subjective reports to quantifiable data.

F I see.

J What we do with motion-sickness is we do individual assessments, and that’s one of the things that my program, Serious Astronaut Training, does is when it comes to motion-sickness, it is highly individualized. We show that individual, my for example, trainee that signed up, I would first assess that person’s individual susceptibility to motion-sickness, and then study within that person without averaging with anybody else. That’s why it is so difficult for me to say that there is a contradiction, and that is why the studies that do, that correlational studies between say anxiety and motion-sickness are not something that, you know, in the textbooks. That person who has, let’s say, high level of anxiety that doesn’t effect his or her motion-sickness may have very low susceptibility to motion-sickness in the first place.

F Mm-hmm (affirmative), interesting.

J It’s not binary. It’s not that simple. It can not be judged like that.

F Let’s see. I’m asking some that aren’t on the list just based on our conversation, it’s so interesting-

J I’ve wanted to mention that I have an appointment at three o’clock, so I would have to leave in about ten minutes. If you, based on what we have discussed, if you have more questions, we can set up another time.

F Do you have time for one more?

J Yeah.

F Okay. I was wondering one last thing about visualization and using it as a tool for training, and if that’s something you ever use, and then how you go about it.

J That’s a very good question. Really, really good. Yes, definitely visualization is normally a part of training, but in environments which I deal with, space flight environments, analog environments, artificial environments, and that, I would think, would involve, well I don’t know. I haven’t dealt with underwater environment, personally, in my research. I don’t know if you should, and you should look into it. In the environments that I deal with, visualization is not a very reliable training tool, because of sensory illusions that are very prominent in the environments where there are those sensory or motor disturbances. Those situations are prone to sensory illusions, and those can be extremely visual. Then, they can mislead you instead of helping you to do the tasks.

F That’s interesting, because it is one thing where you know, you can go and be thinking that you’re so sure on something, but then later that ends up being that cause for error that you were talking about before.

J One of the theories that suggest some explanation of those illusions is, and that theory is really not a theory, but hypothesis of sensory conflict, where the different senses give the brain, the central nervous system, conflicting, contradictory information. Then, the central nervous system has to resolve that sensory conflict. The nervous system has to pick up one of the sensory inputs and define it as the default and ignore the others. It may or may not be the correct input, since several are in conflict. Because we are visual animals really, our primary sense is visual in spacial orientation, those sensory illusions are seriously visual. They’re illusions, but we don’t know that, and we act in such a way as if that is the real, reliable information. Again, a part of my SIRIUS Astronaut Training is to train subjects to recognize that they may be experiencing an illusion, and then enable their so-called unclear environment protocols. Either I don’t do what I need to do, or Idelegate, or I declare emergency.

F Fascinating.


Janna Kaplan, MS, SIRIUS Astronaut Training Program Lead and Senior Scientist

Janna is Lecturer in Psychology and Senior Research Associate at Brandeis University’s Graybiel Lab, specializing in Neuropsychology and Space Research. At Brandeis since 1983, she studies human adaptation to various conditions of space flight such as zero-G, high-G, G-force transitions, artificial gravity environments, spatial orientation/disorientation, and space motion sickness. In cooperation with the Graybiel Lab, and on the foundation of its research and facilities, Janna has developed this program for commercial and private payload and research astronaut training. The training protocol focuses on sensorimotor human factors of spaceflight such as motion sickness, spatial disorientation, spatial illusions, and movement errors in changing gravitational force environments.

An unedited version of this interview was first published as an appendices to the book How Long Can You Hold Your Breath? and can be found here.