Man is a social being. All of us crave for company, good company. Most of the time we reminisce the past with our friends and family and crave for them when we are all alone. Of course there are times when we want to be left all alone but for us to stay happy and sane we always need someone by our side. Can you live all alone for a year without being in touch with another human being? Do you think you would come out sane if you actually managed to do it? How many days do you think you would survive in a single room, away from civilisation and more importantly, away from human touch?
Maurizio Montalbini was an Italian sociologist who was born on 4thSeptember 1953.
On 14thDecember 1986, Montalbini spent 210 days alone in the Frasassi caves in the Apennine mountains near Ancona. During his stay, he put himself on a high calorie diet of powdered foods and capsules just like the astronauts when they visited space. There was a live video feed which was monitored by the scientists on the surface. There was no one else with him in the cave. Obviously he wasn’t provided with a television, radio or a mobile phone….. Infact, he wasn’t provided with even a clock!
He lost complete sense of time. His sleep cycle was completely altered. He would stay awake for a total of 23 hours and sleep for 5 hours. Amazingly according to Montalbini, time would pass by very quickly and he would not realize it. This was a world record at the time.
One cannot fight solitude, one must make a friend of it,” he said after this exploit. “I succeeded in doing this. I carried everything inside me for seven months – affections, convictions, ideals.
In 1988, a local woman by name Stefania Follini, a 27-year-old interior designer and aspiring hermit, heard of Montalbini’s experiments and became curious enough to try the same.She approached him to help her with the same. Montalbini approached the U.S Bureau of Land Management. He called the project Frontiera Donna. This involved a long stay by Follini in the more hospitable caves near Carlsbad, N.M. During the initial interview, Montalbini took Follini into a cave, told her he’d be back in a while and took away the light. When he returned four hours later, she was sitting there in a meditative position. He immediately realised that she was the perfect person for the experiment.
NASA obviously is interested in anything that has to do with a space. And since a cave is a kind of deep space, they got actively interested in studying the mental acuity and physical agility tests that Montalbini conducted with Follini during her stay in the cave in those sunless, moonless, isolated months.
Montalbini and his wife, Antonella, parked a trailer over the cave. Below, played the guitar, practiced judo and performed her tests. Above, Montalbini monitored her and designed and built cities out of cardboard boxes on sheets of plywood. When Montalbini called her at the end of her stay via intercom, the first human voice she’d heard during her stay, he said, “Stefania, I am your God, talking to you.” She thought she’d been gone for less than a month.
Her stay in isolation lasted 130 days in the sealed cave . During her stay, her menstrual cycle stopped, and she began a sleep cycle of waking for 23 hours at a time and sleeping for 10 hours.
In 1993, Montalbini stayed in a cave in Pesaro for an entire year. He lost his sense of time again. He entered the cave on December 6th, 1992 and came out on December 5th,1993. But when he came out according to his calculations he felt that it was June 6th,1993. He broke his world record during this stay which lasted 1 year and 1 day. His immune defense system fell from 23 to 0 and after 10 days it recovered to a level of 2.5. One of the mysteries he was seeking to address in his subsequent experiments was why people who are shut away in the dark have longer daily cycles.
In October 2006, he entered a cave called “Underlab”, 80 meters underground in the Apennine “Grotta Fredda”(cold cave) and intended to stay there for 3 years. This was supposed to be his final experiment. He wanted to provide as much information as possible into the natural cycles of the body. But this stay ended up lasting only for 260 days.
His support team had created a 10-square-metre “home” for him, equipped with running drinking water and an electricity supply to power. There were also an assortment of medical devices to monitor his physical condition and all this information was conveyed to his team on the surface. The temperature in the chamber would reach not more than 10 degree Celsius. Montalbini would spend his so called nights(he never had an idea if it was day or night) sleeping in an enclosed wooden bunk. To be comfortable and at home he took with him four kilos of honey, two kilos of walnuts, and one and a half kilos of chocolate.
Although he spent most of his time in the dark, Montalbini had taken with him 85 books to keep him occupied. He would read them one by one by the light of a gas lamp. This was his final experiment.
When he was asked by a reporter if he preferred living in caves, Montalbini said: “Are you trying to be funny? I’m not going back in there. I need the sun. I used to dream about the dawn. It’s an experience I would not repeat.”
Montalbini’s biography claimed his experiments were done in collaboration with NASA and leading universities around the world. They yielded insights on the effects of long-term isolation, including weight loss, changes in the perception of time and in the sleep and menstrual cycles.
Both Stefania Follini and Montalbini found that time passed quickly underground. Similar experiments elsewhere have led to psychological complications and, in one case, a suicide.
In September 2009, Montalbini died from heart attack while living in Macerata, Italy. Officially his death was in no way connected to his experimental cave dwellings.
This post is a part of #AToZChallenge-2018