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Why some people thrive at the limits

Emma Barrett and Paul Martin

(New Scientist)

I LIKE to think of myself as adventurous, although if I'm honest (and from the comfort of home), I recognise that I probably have little in common with astronauts, explorers or mountaineers. I also have no desire to find out for sure.

But Extreme, by psychologists Emma Barrett and Paul Martin, reminds us that in terms of physiology and psychology, we are all made of the same stuff, albeit in different proportions.

Unlike the similarly titled 2013 book Extremes by Kevin Fong, which looked at medicine in extreme places, Barrett and Martin concentrate on how people living in extreme environments respond to the stresses that surround them.

Within the first few pages, a couple of dozen adventurers have already died quite horrible deaths involving falls from great heights, freezing, starvation and asphyxiation, in various combinations. And then we're thrown straight into the human biological responses to the kind of situations that lead to such deaths.

Deeply researched, and told through personal anecdotes of explorers and studies of how people cope in extreme conditions, the book is amusing, intriguing, exciting and a little horrifying. At one point we're treated to a particularly fruity account of astronaut Jim Lovell's two-week Gemini 7 mission, orbiting Earth alongside a fellow astronaut in "a capsule no bigger than the front seats of a small car".

Without a bathroom, the two astronauts simply had to do their business into their specialised suits. NASA's urine management system leaked and, because they couldn't take off their suits to wash, the pair developed skin problems. Lovell described it as "like spending two weeks in a latrine". Clearly, though, the experience didn't put him off space travel as he completed several more missions at NASA.

Other familiar names, such as Ernest Shackleton and Charles Lindbergh, crop up throughout the book, recalling bedtime tales of heroism. However, the overriding message is that these people are all human, so are as flawed, irritable and irritating as the rest of us.

Still think you'll pass on climbing Everest or crossing the Arabian desert barefoot? No problem. Barrett and Martin point out that knowing how people cope with the toughest scenarios that nature and bad luck throw at them could help all of us handle more mundane situations in our lives.

And here the book strays a little into self-help, advocating meditation for everyone and inviting people to compare their picky bosses to the oversensitive and moody Robert Falcon Scott of Antarctic fame.

The authors are right, of course, that we all have daily challenges to face – ranging from loneliness and boredom to lack of sleep and annoying colleagues. But just imagine how you would cope if those hardships stretched into weeks or months without a break.

So get comfy, fellow armchair explorers, and enjoy discovering how this book can help you face your own personal Everests.

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