All the Ways Travel Can Drive You (Literally) Insane

Everybody knows travel is stressful — but it can also drive you bonkers. Literally. There are a thousand ways that we can lose our marbles while traveling from place to place, depending on the method of travel. Some ways of getting around can drive you mad with fear — while others can destroy you with bliss.

Here are the horrific and euphoric mental states that various transportation methods can inflict upon you.

Sheer Terror

Transportation is supposed to help people skip over the huge empty spaces between where they are and where they want to be. But those spaces, and any new ways of dealing with them, can really do a number on people's heads.

Some of these are just a matter of people anticipating problems that never actually materialized, however.

For example, many people believed that rail travel would mess with people's minds, with their white-knuckled speeds of fifteen miles per hour. Psychologists suggested building fences around train tracks, especially if there were nearby landmarks like trees or orchards, since seeing stationary objects whip by that fast would induce vertigo. And then people had similar worries about cars, when they came along. Luckily, raw speed can't really get in a person's head the way people think it can.

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Space and perspective, however, will do a number on you. NASA noticed a strange thing when astronauts orbiting the planet went out for a space walk — they experiencd paralyzing fear. And this was in a group of people who had been test pilots. In places with complete weightlessness, the astronauts developed intense vertigo and the fear of falling to their deaths.

This is because they were, technically, falling. An object in orbit falls towards the Earth, while being shot sideways so fast that it falls around the curve of the Earth, never making contact with the ground. Still, the dizzying heights and the speed of the fall — the International Space Station orbits the Earth every ninety minutes to keep from plunging to the ground — were things that no human being has ever had to deal with at any point in human history, not even in the few brief moments before a person was actually falling to their death.

This Extravehicular Activity (EVA) height vertigo can attack anyone, giving them the vivid impression that they are currently falling, and making them hang on to whatever is handy, including other astronauts.

And there's another place — on Earth, if not exactly terrestrial — where people get the same sense of space and vertigo. Believe it or not, there's something called kayak angst. Again, it comes from a sudden panic that comes from a loss of reference points. It is generally documented in the far north, and was first documented in Greenland. Paddling out in a kayak, eventually people would go beyond the point where any land was visible.

Adrift in a very wide sea, with no point of reference anywhere, people would suddenly see the point of the kayak raising up what seemed too far above the water. They would think they were capsizing, or they'd be obsessed with the idea that somewhere they were taking on water. Other times they'd just be sure that they were falling, gripped by the same intense vertigo as the astronauts, only this time because of the lack of recognizable landmarks. No way to judge direction meant no way to orient themselves. This, apparently, afflicts people still, when they go out beyond sight of shore in a calm sea, that gives no frame of reference.

When the world is expanded to include far more than just the Earth, or when it's shrunk to a simple line on the horizon, the senses go haywire and panic can ensue. It's just a matter of getting into a place that's suitably alien.

Sheer Euphoria

But the unfamiliar doesn't just hold fear. In fact, most agencies, whether aeronautic, aerospace, or undersea, are worried primarily about people feeling too good. Fear might make people scamper back to safety, but euphoria keeps them out far too long. This is something that most psychologists don't tend to anticipate. They get more practice when it comes to fear than rapture.

And anyway, the "raptures of the deep," otherwise known as the Martini Effect, is physiological. The high pressure of deep water drives more nitrogen into the blood. It turns out that most gases, except noble ones like helium, neon, and probably xenon, interact with the body to cause some kind of altered state. Generally, breathing any of them will displace oxygen and make a person pass out and die, but a diver is in a unique position to have large amounts of nitrogen in their blood while still breathing oxygen. What descends on them is a sort of ecstatic calm.

There are worse highs than that, of course — but with the calm comes a sense of well-being that is not necessarily warranted, and a detachment that is worrying. With it, also, comes decreased motor function and lack of higher reasoning skills. That is a bad combination when someone is far down into the sea. There also is no absolute way of avoiding the narcosis, since it varies dramatically each time depending on stress, tiredness, and the other susceptibilities of the diver. Crews on land know that the only way to get a person out of the narcosis is cold, hard work to build up the carbon dioxide levels in the blood, and coming to the surface as soon as possible - if anyone can get them to come in.

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Getting someone to return has been a major problem time and time again. The Breakaway Effect works on pilots somewhat the same way that the Martini Effect works on divers, except without the physiological cause. The combination of distance, speed, and a new experience caused pilots to try to climb higher and go faster than was even remotely safe for them. This effect kept happening the higher and the faster they went, even into space.

There are transcripts of mission control pleading, cajoling, and ordering astronauts on space walks back into the space capsule, and the astronauts flat-out ignoring them. Considering the risks of space flight, and the extreme caution with which all these risks are managed as a matter of survival, this isn't something that should happen.

A part of this is understandable. Every trip up or down, whether it's space, the atmosphere, or the ocean, can take years of training, and months of practice and boring day-to-day details. No one, when finally doing the thing they've been working towards for years, would want it to be over. But it's also possible that, even though no one's mind was blown by rushing by an apple orchard on a train, there is something about being in a space where all the familiar things that have helped people orient themselves for their near-entire span of evolution that fundamentally scrambles the brain. There are a million chemicals that induce terror and awe, and humans flock to all of them. It's not surprising that whatever triggers the brain internally might have an external analog. It's not just chemicals that can trip the brain, it's geography.

Top Two Images: NASA Image

Via Scribd, Deep Dyve, GB, Scuba.doc, and Packing for Mars.