Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques is participating in a York University study designed to reveal how we process the visual and other sensory cues that give us our sense of motion and distance. To learn more, science reporter Ivan Semeniuk became a control subject and tried the experiment out himself.
Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques may be a new arrival to the International Space Station, but his first experience with spaceflight is already providing scientists with a key data point in their efforts to understand how the brain creates a sense of orientation and motion.
At around 5 a.m. on Thursday, Dr. Saint-Jacques attempted a novel set of perception experiments devised by Laurence Harris, a professor with the Human Performance Laboratory at York University in Toronto.
After tethering himself inside the station’s Columbus science module, Dr. Saint-Jacques donned a pair of goggles and immersed himself in a virtual-reality environment designed to test how his brain determines which way is up and how far objects are in the distance. On Earth, the visual cues provided by the experiment are combined with signals from the inner ear, also known as the vestibular system, which alert the brain when the body is accelerating or tilted with respect to the force of gravity.
In the zero-gravity environment of the space station, the vestibular system is effectively off line, allowing scientists to focus on how the visual system can lead or mislead the brain in its judgments. The work is meant to explore, in a quantitative way, some of the perception effects that astronauts have previously reported they can experience in space, including a sense that distances are compressed relative to how they seem on Earth.
Both Dr. Saint-Jacques and his U.S. crew mate Anne McClain performed the experiment, less than three days after arriving at the station.
“We wanted to get them early before they were too used to being in space,” said Dr. Harris, who was in contact with Dr. Saint-Jacques during the experiment via the Canadian Space Agency’s mission control centre near Montreal.
Ultimately, Dr. Harris and his team aim to have seven astronauts participate in the study before, during and after their time in space. In addition to helping astronauts adjust to their perceptions while on the station, the results may shed light on how to better help those on Earth who have vestibular problems due to injury or neurological disorders.
Dr. Harris said he was pleased with how Dr. Saint-Jacques seemed to manage with the demands of the experiment.
“By all appearances he was doing, really, really well … I’m sure way better that I would have done after being launched into a space a few days earlier.”