Antarctic Winter-Over Syndrome

Narrative Perspective

by Jan Felicjan Terelak (Author)
©2021 Monographs 280 Pages


The book is a journal that presents narrations and factual accounts of events covering 144 days the author spent during the Third Scientific Expedition of the Polish Academy of Sciences to the Arctowski Station on King George Island (South Shetland Islands). The observations comprise events and behaviors in daily life situations of a team of Polish polar explorers. A valuable source of knowledge for empirical psychology on the behavior of people in extreme conditions, the book describes symptoms that form the winter-over syndrome. The “winter-over syndrome” may be predicted by analogous effects of space isolation, especially in long-term space missions, like an expedition to Mars. Hence, this book is an important scientific and civilizational event in the era of space exploration.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Foreword to the Second Edition
  • Series index

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The Third Antarctic Expedition of the Polish Academy of Sciences and wintering in a group of 21 Polish polar explorers at the Henryk Arctowski Polish Antarctic Station on King George Island (South Shetland Islands) in the years 1978– 1979 was already put to paper in the form of Jan Terelak’s book entitled Antarctic Introspections (orig. title Introspekcje Antarktyczne) published in Polish (Warsaw, 1982). The book takes the form of a journal in which the author presents narrations and factual accounts of events covering 144 days spent during the Expedition’s stay at the Antarctic Station of the Polish Academy of Sciences. It also features the author’s interpretations of said event with psychological overtones concerning the description and interpretation of psychological behavior in extreme conditions. These were studies on the situational context useful for ex post interpretation of psychometric tests carried out at regular two-week intervals throughout the entire 1+ year-long stay of the Third Scientific Expedition of the Polish Academy of Sciences at the Arctowski Station.

The current English version of the book bears a title that is a more synthetic account of the observations made by the author himself: Antarctic Winter-Over Syndrome: Narrative Perspective. What is the subject of the observation and later narration in this travel and polar journal? These are, among other things: events and behaviors in daily life situations of a team of Polish polar explorers, unusual events, emergency situations, human relations, spontaneous formation of small groups of people, extraordinary stimuli, extreme situations, the beauty of Antarctic nature and landscape, the behavior of animals staying permanently or seasonally in Antarctica, natural phenomena, daily activities of polar explorers, stress related to the gusts of winter polar winds, visual illusions, behavior of polar explorers in a simulated situation of a 24-hour power generator failure, psychosocial phenomena related to Antarctic isolation and how the polar explorers spent their free time.

The observation of phenomena, people and nature involves not only sensory perception or simple stimuli, but also assumes apperception. The notion of apperception was introduced in psychology in the course of discussions between two people who were philosophers and psychologists at the same time. One of them was G. Leibniz, considered to be one of the leading philosophers, broad-minded when it comes to systematization and an excellent mathematician, and the other was Ch. Wolff, who made the basic distinction between empirical and rational psychology, and was the first to introduce the concept of psychometrics ←9 | 10→to psychology (Biela, 2019). The necessary condition for the transition from perception into the state of apperception is the occurrence of a circumstantial cause, which is a new sensual experience that updates, i.e. stimulates and provokes awareness of ideas which potentially exist in the human mind – thus becoming perception. It is apperceptions that are the basis of all human experiences and it is against their background that complex mental processes are created, such as those which were the subject of observation and later introspective-retrospective narrations presented in this book. For Polish polar explorers, Antarctica was an environment of thematic perception, extending both the scope of their hitherto scientific knowledge and the cognitive field.

When starting each academic year, I give a lecture presenting the methodological status of psychology as a science, which includes: subject, methods, purpose and sources of cognition. Contemporary psychology currently considers human behavior as its subject, both in everyday life situations as well as those extreme, where both one’s own experience and that of others depend on the person. In this book on the behavior of polar explorers presented to the Reader, we are generally dealing with extreme situations, taking into account their new living conditions found on the Fifth Continent, as Antarctica is called precisely because of the specificity of its climate and the accompanying natural phenomena.

The conditions of human life in the Antarctic, in particular during the Antarctic winter, can be described as having typical features of a man’s struggle for survival against the element. In such a situation the members of the Third Antarctic Expedition of the Polish Academy of Sciences, who in the years 1978–1979 wintered in a 21-person group at the Henryk Arctowski Polish Antarctic Station on King George Island, in the South Shetland archipelago, who were described in this book. Their daily work: scientific, technical, medical, service, psychological, photojournalistic, film-making, cleaning, construction and cooking. was performed in conditions of permanent polar stress with features of a fight against the elements of Antarctica, just as miner’s daily work has features of fighting against the elements in a mine, and sailor’s and fisherman’s daily work is a fight against the elements of the sea.

However, in daily work in conditions of polar stress, there are also situations where the degree of extremity exceeds those in which they have already learned to function reasonably effectively. These are new and very dangerous situations, in which one has to partake in a real fight for one’s own survival or that of one’s colleagues. Such situations can never be planned and thus the observation of the behavior of people in them cannot be planned as well. Methodologically, they are impossible for systematic observation because of their ethical and moral nature, as they would threaten the biological and psychophysical integrity of the person ←10 | 11→involved. However, sometimes it may happen that a polar explorer participates in such a situation in a completely unexpected and unplanned manner. Then, it may be possible, provided that the person survives this event, on their own or with the help of a psychologist, for them to narrate their experiences in such extreme situation in an introspective-retrospective manner. This account should, to the greatest extent possible, take place on the same day that the specific events took place. Prof. Jan Terelak regularly wrote down the events in his journal, writing entries every day, so it can be assumed that this condition was met. In his narratives we deal with the accounts of events and experiences from both the everyday situation of polar explorer’s life as well as extreme situations. It is precisely the narratives from such situations that, from the point of view of psychology, are an invaluable source of knowledge about complementary psychological laws in situations to which an experimental psychologist, having control over variables in laboratory or even quasi-natural conditions, has no access.

It is also worth noting that the vast majority of the patterns of sensory and social deprivation known in the psychological literature come from experimental research, e.g. the famous McGill University experiment on “total” deprivation of external stimuli reported by McKeachie et al. (1976). In view of this type of research, objections of a moral nature were raised at the time, because of the serious psychological consequences of such experiments. Therefore, in this context, the method of participatory observation, which was undertaken by Prof. J. Terelak who took part in the work of the team of polar explorer and carried out not only his own longitudinal psychological research of the polar explorers during their wintering over in Antarctica, but also, on the basis of his observations, introspective-retrospective narration of selected aspects of observed events of psychological significance. In my opinion, these narratives are a valuable source of knowledge for empirical psychology on the behavior of people in the extreme Antarctic conditions, especially during the Antarctic winter, when the group of Polish polar explorers worked. In these extreme conditions the medical service of the Arctowski Station on King George Island did not retreat from providing assistance to deep-sea vessels in cases of emergency, performing effective surgical interventions on Polish fishermen.

I consider the idea expressed by the book’s author in the Introduction, concerning the possibility of using the Polish Antarctic Station as a place to study in natural conditions the behavior of a small task force of Polish polar explorers on King George Island as an analogy of the behavior of a small task force of participants in future long-range space flights, to be methodologically accurate. The way of thinking by analogy is all the more justified here, because there have already been attempts to use the results of psychological research carried ←11 | 12→out by prof. J. Terelak during his work in the Committee for Space and Satellite Research at the Presidium of the Polish Academy of Sciences, where the first Pole Miroslaw Hermaszewski was being prepared for space flight. The base relation of the analogy in such a reasoning is the appropriateness of the predicted behavior of cosmonauts in a situation of outer space isolation, and the premise for an analogous conclusion in this reasoning is the behavior of polar explorers in isolation caused by the polar winter.

The book by Prof. Jan Terelak features a number of original and fascinating introspective-retrospective narratives presented in a manner which motivates to continue reading about the life and scientific work of Polish scientists/polar explorers and about the beautiful yet harsh and vibrant nature of Antarctica. His journal of polar events published in book form has a great heuristic potential, not only for psychologists who are focused on describing human behavior in new and extreme situations, but also for all those who constantly rediscover themselves.

Lublin, 12 March 2020 Prof. Adam Biela

 Maria Curie-Skłodowska University

 Institute of Psychology

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Prof. Jan F. Terelak’s Antarctic Diaries deals with the fascinating issue of psychological complications that can occur during human exploration of space, which, on the example of the analysis of psychological perplexities in the participants of long-term Antarctic expeditions, can be a background for showing the potential difficulties in the realization of the Mars landing missions, because both situations, from the psychological standpoint, have a thing in common – namely the property of touching upon borderline situations. Borderline situations, as extreme existential events such as death, extreme suffering or boundless loneliness, always come up against a wall of cognitive and adaptive possibilities of man, and as such arouse horror on the one hand and extreme fascination with the possibility of experiencing the empirical limits of humanity and human condition on the other. In other words, these are situations which, on the one hand, horrify and, on the other hand, magically attract, with people who treat them as an attractive challenge not really knowing in the slightest what they are getting into. And this is what this book is about, which, in my opinion, shows in a well thought-out manner the dynamics of people discovering more and more darker sides of mental functioning in situations which are approached with enthusiasm in their imagination, but which in reality experience a drama of hopelessness, character breakdowns and all those dark sides of growing crises from which there is neither turning back nor escaping.

Reading this book as a sample of the challenges that await the participants of long-term space missions seems to be a legitimate step. The “Winter-over Syndrome” is one of those side effects of Antarctic expeditions that allows capturing the mythical mystery of the unimaginable world of fear, horror, risk, boredom, loneliness, crowding, etc. Everything connected with borderline situations exceeds the horizon of any previous experiences and possibilities of depicting, and thus escapes planning. Although we are not able to grasp boundary situations cognitively and catalogue possible existential events in them in the form of available representations, we are at least able to get close to them thanks to some analogies with critical situations, such as the functioning of people in closed and isolated environments (so-called ICE – Isolated and Confined Environments) and in extreme environments such as Antarctica. This is the path followed by the author of the book entitled Antarctic Winter-Over Syndrome. Since it is impossible to show everything that daredevils will live in isolation from the earth’s environment, one can be tempted to show samples of ←13 | 14→the challenges faced by people who have been put into similar roles, although not so extreme.

The use of the Antarctic expedition and the related winter-over syndrome to show a potential long-term space mission as an extreme situation is formally a procedure that is most justified from a scientific and cognitive point of view. Although extreme situations, like the expedition to Mars, are unpredictable, the anatomy of the spectrum of human experiences taking place in it is possible in certain ranges. Antarctic expeditions are a good analogy to long-lasting space expeditions, because systematic medical and psychological observations carried out on them give an idea of the scale of difficulties that every human being and every task force inevitably and irrevocably faces when confronted eye to eye with them. On the basis of, among other things, Prof. J. Terelak’s research and psychological observations, we learn, on the one hand, that one can prepare for many existential events – accompanying long-term isolation in an environment closed to an extremely hostile external environment – by training skills and attitudes. On the other hand, however, we also learn that in the face of extreme environmental pressures, so unforeseen and so extreme events inevitably occur that nothing can be done about them and no previous a priori attitudes will change anything. Knowledge, including the scientific knowledge that people bring with them in extreme situations and environments becomes completely useless when the level of objective pressures exceeds the limits of adaptation. The scenario showing this process on the example of Prof. Terelak’s account illustrates the powerlessness of psychological knowledge in moderating the borderline situation of Antarctic isolation. In my opinion, this moment is the key argument for using the natural experiment for scientific purposes, to show the essence of the phenomenon of experts losing their expert power to explain human behavior in a borderline situation.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (January)
Extreme stress Space psychology Sensory deprivation Social isolation Dynamics of small groups
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2021. 280 pp., 50 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Jan Felicjan Terelak (Author)

Jan Felicjan Terelak is Associate Professor at the Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Head of the Chair of Stress and Labor Psychology, and Director of the Transportation Laboratory. His scientific activity focuses on problems of extreme stress psychology and aerospace and space psychology. For several decades, he was involved in the psychological selection of pilots flying on jet aircraft and candidates for Polish astronauts. As one of four psychologists in the 20th c., he conducted observations in Antarctica on a group of 20 polar explorers for 14 months about their adaptation to excruciating social isolation from the perspective of future astronautical flights. He conducted unique research on redistributing work and leisure time on space stations and biorhythm disorder.


Title: Antarctic Winter-Over Syndrome
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