Dr. Suedfeld started out as an experimental cognitive psychologist, but also had an interest in environmental and social psychology. Early in his career, he began a series of laboratory experiments using the restricted environmental stimulation technique (REST), formerly known as "sensory deprivation."
After studying polar scientists and expedition crew subjects, it was clear he could make the leap to space psychology. He realized that polar stations provide an analogue for the confinement of space flight. Currently, he is Dean Emeritus of Graduate Studies and Professor Emeritus of Psychology, at the University of British Columbia.
Peter Suedfeld's work on reduced stimulation environments was carried out in a variety of situations, but always involved a completely dark, soundproof room. "I found that most people consider REST to be quite tolerable and even pleasant. It can even have beneficial effects on a wide range of outcomes: learning, relaxation, creativity, and athletic performance. Because most of the literature at that time emphasized how unpleasant such experiences are, this came as a surprise."
He also looked at other environments that had been described in negative terms, both in scientific and popular literature. He studied the experiences of people who have undergone intense trauma such as those who have lived through political and military crises, or pioneers of the American West. "It turns out that most people are quite resilient and able to cope with, and even benefit from, extremely stressful experiences. It is a mistake to assume that everyone suffers to the same degree, that their problems will persist, or that someone cannot lead a happy, normal life after experiencing great distress."
"I began collecting data in the Canadian Arctic and in Antarctica. Polar regions, especially the Antarctic, present similar situations and factors to those of space capsules. The milestones for me were two summer projects near the magnetic north pole. A High Arctic Psychology Research Station was assembled in an abandoned weather station. We collected data on people's mood, and the changes in sensation and perception (for example, in how food tastes), as well as sleep, brain wave, and heart rates, activity levels, and social interactions. What struck me most was how nearly all of the participants enjoyed the experience."
"This experience made me realize how wrong it is to think of isolation and confinement as unusual and uncomfortable, or of such an environment as necessarily terrible."
Dr. Suedfeld has learned about the dangers of not communicating a message clearly to team members. “On the research station grounds, we had seen polar bear tracks, so I established a rule that one could not go hiking alone, or without a walkie-talkie and a firearm.
“One time, a team member called to say that she had become separated from her fellow hiker who was carrying the shotgun; she noticed a large, light-coloured animal approaching. I grabbed a rifle, and a teammate and I went roaring out on a three-wheeled ATV. We were afraid that we would not reach her in time! We were about halfway there when she radioed again: she had found her colleague, and an animal was indeed approaching her, but it was a kilometre away, and she realized it was only a caribou. After that, we worked out more detailed instructions about how to make a radio call for help!”
Peter Suedfeld is not planning to take part in a space mission—at least for now! But his research identifies some sources of negative stress in an isolated environment: a lack of physical and mental stimulation, difficulties communicating with family members, resentment for the intrusiveness and habits of others, lack of privacy, and cultural misunderstanding. "If we know the sources of negative stress, it is possible to find preventive strategies and countermeasures for astronauts travelling in space for months, and, eventually, years. Some strategies are quite simple, but others require considerable effort."