IDS and the skivers from Mars

Why cutting money from benefits might not save anything in the long run.

It might not be a bad idea to send Iain Duncan Smith to Mars. We’d soon see what turns a striver into a skiver. Last month, scientists released the results of a study into what happens when people are kept indolent for more than a year. They sleep more, play more video games and lose all normal motivation. Being stripped of normal routines makes it hard to revert to being a striver. The study wasn’t intended to be a critique of social policy; it was about space exploration.

The pioneering Dutch organisation Mars One has more than 1,000 volunteers lined up to take its one-way trips to the Red Planet starting in 2023. Be careful what you wish for, though: if you commit to any of the missions, you will be cooped up with your fellow astronauts in tightly fitting accommodation for nearly 18 months. The study makes it clear that, unless you’re careful, some of you may lose your mind.

The Mars500 project, which took place just outside Moscow, replicated the conditions of a trip to Mars. A multinational mix of engineers, astronaut trainers and doctors spent 520 days in a mock-up of a spaceship composed of narrow tunnels and rooms. Cut off from the rest of the world, crew members were monitored by video cameras and activity monitors worn like wristwatches, enabling scientists to record their behaviour. The mock astronauts were given various things to do but it was what they didn’t do that was most telling.

They didn’t bother with physical activity in the way they might have done when going about their normal existence. As their lethargy grew, they largely avoided the better-lit parts of their accommodation. By the time the mission drew to a close, half of them were sleeping an hour more per night than at the start. For some, playing video games became a coping strategy to deal with the endless tedium.

Nasa and the European Space Agency will be using the data to inform future astronaut training but there is a lesson for lesser mortals, too. If you strip people of normal human purpose, even those who have had the drive to become doctors and engineers struggle to get it back.

In more mundane contexts, long-term poverty leads to some very dark situations. A study published just after Christmas reported on interviews with low-income urban women. They described themselves as living with high stress, long-term exposure to violence, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder and intense isolation and loneliness. The researchers who carried out the study noted that no one knows how to get the women out of this place.

Such situations lead to increased health-care burdens, too. A study of 200 breast cancer survivors, also published in December, has shown that loneliness and social isolation lead to pain, depression, fatigue and illness. It’s not all in their heads: blood samples showed that the women’s ability to fight disease and deal with pain were altered. As the researchers put it, “Loneliness enhances [the] risk for immune dysregulation.”

The message is clear, whether the news comes from space agencies, social policy researchers or cancer survivors: if you cut people off from the norms of society, they will collapse in on themselves. Unless you’re superhuman, failing to find work for an extended period will end with you giving up on everything, including staying healthy. So, the money saved from benefit cuts may end up being spent on health-care interventions for the terminally disadvantaged – unless you send them with IDS on that one-way trip to Mars.

Michael Brooks’s “The Secret Anarchy of Science” is published by Profile Books (£8.99)

Mars: Iain Duncan Smith's new home? Photograph: NASA

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 04 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Intervention Trap

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear