Cave exploring

Many things go wrong when one spends months alone in a dark cave. Time freezes and the body’s rhythms get confused.

Sleep is reduced to a few hours a night and menstruation may stop. Fascinating stories, such as that of Spanish climber and cave dweller Beatrice Flamini, shed light on what motivates someone to become a cave dweller.

Flamini’s life as a cave dweller

On April 14, Flamini emerged from a cave in the country after spending a record 500 days in seclusion underground, barring a “technical problem” that forced her to bivouac for eight days on the surface, in a tent. Life underground had taken on its own rhythm of reading, drawing and knitting woolen hats and tending to her personal needs. She left her waste at a contactless collection point and received food in return.

Freed from her cave, she first asked who would pay for a celebratory beer.

“I was asleep, or at least I was when they came down to get me,” she told reporters, according to the report The Guardian. “I thought something had happened. I said, “Already? No way.’ I hadn’t finished my book.” Like other record-breaking cavemen before her, she had read piles and piles, 60 books in all. Overall, she called life in the cave “excellent, unbeatable.”

The downside of living in isolation

Flamini’s GoPro videos share the downsides of living in isolation.

“It’s not that time goes faster or slower,” she says in one video. “[It’s] it just doesn’t pass because it’s always four in the morning.’

In another video, she realizes she has lost something while hanging from ropes in the cave and covers her face. “What a terrible day,” she says. “I wanted to cry all day.”

What inspires someone to isolate themselves?

Decades before Flamini, an Italian sociologist named Maurizio Montalbini spent a total of two years and eight months underground, by his own count, isolating himself in caves for varying periods (210 days here and 366 days there).

He once lived in a small underground building with running water and electricity and wore monitoring equipment to relay his condition to a team of experts. While underground, he read profusely and ate walnuts and chocolate as time passed, as it did with Flamini.

What inspires these record-setting insulators to attempt such marathons? In a very serious way they are harmful to the health of insulators – social isolation reduces life expectancy by about 15 years, similar to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, according to the National Institute on Aging.

Read more: Social isolation increases the risk of cardiovascular problems

Hermit reveals the unique joys of isolation

Although it’s a health hazard, isolation can also be liberating, modern hermits say. Brother Rex, Catholic hermit from the Portland area, follows a daily schedule filled with prayer, church services, spiritual reading and a fair amount of email answering.

“One of the most joyful aspects of my life as a hermit is the opportunity God has given me to spend long periods in the silence of solitude,” he says, “to practice presence before God and before my neighbor through prayer.”

A self-described hermit, Maine resident Christopher Knight spent 27 years living alone in a tent in the woods, graduating in 2013.

According to Michael Finkelwho wrote The stranger in the forest for Knight, “He was never bored for a moment in all 27 years. He was never lonely. He said he felt almost the opposite of that. He said he felt completely and intricately connected to everything else in the world. It was hard for him to tell where his body ended and the forest began.

Read more: Humans evolved to be lonely

Cavers at home in caves

While Knight felt an almost physical force pulling him into isolation, Montalbini once told a reporter who asked him if he preferred life underground: “Are you trying to be funny? I won’t go back there. I need the sun. I dreamed of the dawn. It is an experience I would not repeat.”

Yet he later climbed Italy’s Grotta Fredda (“cold cave”) in 2006 and stayed there for 235 days, shorter than the originally planned three years.

Like Flamini and Montalbini, speleologists often feel unique at home in the caves where our ancestors lived for at least two million years.

Flamini fell in love with his tiny home, but the process required some effort.

“I’m where I want to be,” she told herself, and admitted that what she was missing was “part of the project. There is nothing to do but accept it.

Read more: Why alone time carries a stigma

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