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Siffre Cave Study Psychology

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Siffre Cave Study Psychology

What would happen to our sleeping pattern if we had no indication if it was day or night? Would we still have a regular schedule? A French adventurer and scientist, Michel Siffre, sought to find out. We will be looking at one of his studies here. Before that, let's define some terms related to sleep and set the background of the study.

We have a regular sleep/wake pattern on a 24-hour day due to biological rhythms – internal biological clocks in our body that govern different bodily functions/cycles. There are different biological rhythms, and one of these is the circadian rhythm.

The circadian rhythm lasts for 24 hours. A well-known circadian rhythm is a sleep-wake cycle. This cycle is our pattern of sleeping and wakefulness during a 24-hour day. Everyone's sleep-wake cycle is different, and different things can affect the sleep-wake cycle, such as external cues. These external cues are called exogenous zeitgebers, and the most notable one affecting the sleep-wake cycle is daylight.

Biological rhythms

Internal biological clocks in our body that govern different bodily functions/cycles

Circadian rhythm

A biological rhythm that lasts for 24 hours.

An example of a circadian rhythm is the sleep-wake cycle.

Exogenous zeitgebersExternal cues from the environment that influence biological rhythms

An example of an exogenous zeitgeber that influences the sleep-wake cycle is daylight.

Siffre (!975) Six months alone in a cave, person sleeping in bed dreaming of space, StudySmarterThe sleep-wake cycle is a classic example of circadian rhythms, freepik.com/pch.vector

Michel Siffre's cave study in psychology: summary of Siffre's cave study

  • Michel Siffre is an adventurer and scientist interested in the study of caves. In 1962, at 23 years old, he decided to live in a cave alone in the French Alps for two months, which was partly due to finding a glacier there sometime before he wanted to study.
  • He then had the idea of living without any natural light, with no clue what time it was. So instead of studying the glacier, he ended up studying time. He spent his time in the cave reading, writing, researching, and thinking about the future. He settled into a sleep-wake cycle of around 24 hours and 30 minutes.
  • He went into the cave on 16 July 1962 and came out of the cave on 14 September 1962. However, Siffre thought the day he came out of the cave was the 20 of August, showing how his time in the cave had warped his sense of time.
  • Afterwards, Siffre also had other people participate in cave experiments but found their sleep-wake cycle was 48 hours. Siffre wanted to see if he could also get his sleep-wake cycle to be 48 hours. In addition, this was when people were starting space exploration, and Siffre thought his cave studies could help us know the experiences astronauts go through, which might be similar to being in a cave.
  • So, in 1972, when he was 33 years old, he decided to live alone in a cave again – this time, for six months.

Siffre cave study psychology aims

The aims of the study were:

  • To find out what it would be like for astronauts in space, where there were no exogenous zeitgebers such as daylight to affect our biological rhythms.
  • Siffre wanted to find out what his natural sleep-wake cycle would be without any exogenous zeitgebers.

Procedure

On 14 February 1972, Siffre went into Midnight Cave, Texas, USA and stayed there for six months. He stayed in a tent with a bed, table, and chair.

  • He took a supply of frozen food and 780 gallons of water into the cave.

  • When Siffre woke up and thought it was daytime, he phoned the research team above ground, and they switched on the lights in the cave.

  • He conducted daily experiments, taking his blood pressure, memory, and physical tests. When he felt tired, he thought it was then nighttime; he would phone the research team again, informing them he thought it was night and they would turn the lights off, and Siffre would go to sleep.

Siffre cave study psychology findings

After some time in the cave, Siffre became depressed and despondent at his lack of freedom. He was also excruciatingly lonely, he wanted to trap a mouse so he would have some companionship, but in the process of trapping it, he accidentally killed the mouse. In his own words, 'Desolation overwhelms me.'

In addition, his record player broke, and his books got ruined due to dampness. His condition was so dire that Siffre thought of suicide. His short-term memory, mental health, and eyesight all got worse.

Here is an account of his experience in the cave:

Overcome with lethargy and bitterness, I sit on a rock and stare at my campsite in the bowels of Midnight Cave, near Del Rio, Texas. Behind me lie a hundred days of solitude; ahead loom two and a half more lonely months. But I - a wildly displaced Frenchman - know none of this, for I am living "beyond time," divorced from calendars and clocks, and from sun and moon, to help determine, among other things, the natural rhythms of human life.—Siffre (1975)

For the first 35 days, Siffre had a sleep-wake cycle of 26 hours.

On day 37, he stayed up for a few more hours and then slept long. This pattern of being awake and then asleep for a long time occurred periodically for the next month.

Then on day 63, he returned to a cycle of 26 hours. Nine weeks later, his sleep-wake cycle became more varied and random again for 20 days.

Sometimes it was 48 hours as the people in previous studies. When his sleep-wake cycle varied, the cycle could be from 18–52 hours. On day 150, he returned to a 26-hour cycle that lasted until the experiment's end.

Siffre (1975) Six months alone in a cave, hiking man entering a cave area with a pool of water and bed, StudySmarterMichel Siffre spent six months in a cave without daylight to study the natural sleep-wake cycle, freepik.com/upklyak

Conclusion

Siffre thought that astronauts would be able to manage their biological rhythm without any exogenous zeitgebers; however, they would need companionship as the isolation would not be manageable. Siffre concluded that time is not something humans could work with and understand without any external environmental cues.

Michel Siffre cave study psychology evaluation

Let's look at the strengths and weaknesses of Siffre's (1975) study.

Strengths

  • The study produced a lot of quantitative and qualitative data.

  • The study was done over a long time, six months, which allowed Siffre to investigate his sleep-wake cycle and show how irregular it became.

Weaknesses

  • When Siffre woke up, strong lights were put on, and when he went to sleep, they were turned off. The lights could have acted as an external cue, which affects the study's internal validity.

  • Siffre was the only participant in the study, so it is hard to generalise his findings, such as how he did to astronauts.


Siffre Cave Study Psychology - Key takeaways

  • We all have a sleep-wake cycle, a kind of biological rhythm (internal body clock). Exogenous zeitgebers can influence biological rhythms (external cues from the environment).
  • Siffre conducted an experiment where he spent six months alone in a cave. He aimed to find out what it would be like for astronauts in space, where there were no exogenous zeitgebers such as daylight to affect our biological rhythms. Also, what his natural sleep-wake cycle would be without any exogenous zeitgeber.
  • When Siffre woke up and thought it was daytime, he phoned the research team above ground, and they switched on the lights in the cave. He conducted daily experiments, taking his blood pressure, memory, and physical tests. When he felt tired and thought it was nighttime, he would phone the research team again, they would turn the lights off, and Siffre would go to sleep.
  • Siffre became depressed, and his short-term memory, mental health, and eyesight worsened. His sleep-wake cycle varied a lot. For some periods, it was a fairly regular 26 hours. However, it could range from 18 to 52 hours.
  • Siffre concluded that although his biological rhythm was inconsistent without any external cues, it was still manageable. Regarding astronauts, Siffre thought that they would be able to manage their biological rhythm without any cues; however, they would need companionship. Siffre concluded that time is not something humans could work with and understand without any external environmental cues.

Frequently Asked Questions about Siffre Cave Study Psychology

Siffre lived in a cave alone for six months to investigate the sleep-wake cycle and what it would be like without any external environmental cues. In the cave, when Siffre woke up and thought it was daytime, he phoned the research team above ground, who switched on the lights in the cave. He conducted daily experiments, taking his blood pressure, memory, and physical tests. When he felt tired and thought it was nighttime, he would phone the research team again, they would turn the lights off, and Siffre would go to sleep.   

Siffre conducted three experiments in total where he lived in a cave to investigate the sleep-wake cycle. 

In Siffre (1975), he lived in a cave alone for six months. He was very lonely and became depressed, and his short-term memory, mental health and eyesight all got worse.    

Although his sleep-wake cycle was irregular, it was manageable. In Siffre (1975), sometimes it was at a regular 26-hour cycle. When it varied, it could be anything between 18 and 52 hours. However, he thought time was not something humans could work with and understand without any external environmental cues.   

Siffre proved that our internal body clock can still be managed without external environmental cues.  

Final Siffre Cave Study Psychology Quiz

Question

What are biological rhythms?

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Answer

Biological rhythms are internal biological clocks in our body that govern different bodily functions/cycles.   

Show question

Question

What are circadian rhythms?

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Answer

Circadian rhythms are biological rhythms that lasts for 24 hours. 

Show question

Question

What is an example of a circadian rhythm?


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Answer

An example of a circadian rhythm is the sleep-wake cycle.

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Question

What are exogenous zeitgebers?


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Answer

Exogenous zeitgebers are external cues from the environment that influence biological rhythms.

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Question

What were the aims of Siffre (1975) study?


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Answer

The aims were:

  • To find out what it would be like for astronauts in space, where there were no exogenous zeitgebers such as daylight to affect our biological rhythms.
  • Siffre wanted to find out what his natural sleep-wake cycle would be without any exogenous zeitgebers.

Show question

Question

In the cave, what did Siffre do when he woke up and thought it was daytime?


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Answer

He phoned the research team above ground and they switched on lights in the cave.

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Question

How did Siffre spend his time in the cave?


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Answer

He conducted daily experiments, taking his blood pressure, memory, and physical tests. 

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Question

What did Siffre do when he was tired and thought then that it was night time?


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Answer

He would phone the research team informing them he thought it was night, they would turn the lights off and Siffre would go to sleep.

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Question

How was Siffre affected by his time in the cave?


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Answer

He became depressed and despondent at his lack of freedom. He was very lonely, and his short-term memory, mental health, and eyesight worsened. 

 

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Question

When Siffre’s sleep-wake cycle varied what was the duration it could be?


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Answer

From 18-52 hours

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Question

What did Siffre conclude from his study?


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Answer

His sleep-wake cycle varied a lot when there were no external cues from the environment as to what time it was. However, although his biological rhythm was inconsistent, it was still manageable. He thought astronauts would be able to manage their internal biological clock but they would need companionship to help with isolation. Time is not something humans could work with and understand without any external environmental cues.   

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Question

What are two strengths of the study?


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Answer

  • The study produced a lot of quantitative and qualitative data. 
  • The study was done over quite a long period of time, 6 months, which allowed Siffre to really investigate his sleep-wake cycle and show how irregular it became.

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Question

What are two weaknesses of the study?


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Answer

  • When Siffre woke up strong lights were put on and when he went to sleep they were turned off. The lights could have acted as an external cue., thus the study lacked internal validity. 
  • Siffre was the only participant in the study, so it is hard to generalise his findings, such as how he did to astronauts.

Show question

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