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The Longest Night : Veronique Le Guen Found That 111 Days in a Cave Changed More Than Her Sense of Time

December 09, 1988|RONE TEMPEST | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — She was alone in a cave, 275 feet underground, for 111 days. She had no clock or music to provide a rhythm to her life. There was no sunrise, no sunset--not even a change of temperature from a constant dank 48.1 degrees to give her a clue her if it was morning or night on the surface of the Earth.

One "night" she slept for 31 hours. Another time, she took an afternoon siesta that lasted 18 hours, but when she awoke, she thought she had dozed off for only a few minutes.

She was, in the jargon of the scientific sect that studies such voluntary isolation, "de-synchronized"--outside time. Buried in the limestone belly of southern France near L'Aven du Valat-Negre, she temporarily was floating loose, freer and more disconnected than an astronaut in space.

Volunteering for the Experiment

This, of course, was the whole point of the experiment. At the behest of a controversial French scientist famed for his long-term cave isolation studies, Veronique Le Guen, 32, volunteered to go underground as part of an effort to learn more about the human "body clock."

The theory of this science, sometimes called chrono-biology, is that the body itself is a timepiece that marches to its own internal rhythms and cycles. The best way to see how the human clock ticks, some researchers say, is to place volunteers in caves or bunkers away from all time-related stimuli, which can be as varied as morning dew on the grass and the ringing of church bells on Sunday.

The results of the research have far-reaching implications for national defense, where the data is used to determine work schedules in such confined environments as nuclear submarines and missile silos, and for medicine, where body rhythms are relevant in determining dosages of powerful chemical drugs.

An Amateur Speleologist

Le Guen is not a scientist, although she has spent the past several years exploring caves with her husband, a photographer and amateur speleologist. She is a former executive secretary, daughter of shopkeepers in the Paris suburbs, and in that respect a perfect product of the class the French call la petite bourgeoisie.

As a child she was an avid reader and dreamer. The dreary gray Paris suburbs imprisoned her spirit.

"Even as a small child she asked me why I hadn't made her a boy," said her mother, Mireille Borel, "She thought you had to be a boy to have adventure."

"I hated my life. I felt I could do great things but I didn't know what they would be," Le Guen said.

Her life changed after meeting her husband, Francis, already an avid cave explorer. Their first weekend together was spent exploring an underwater cave near Paris.

In 1983, they went to Australia to explore the huge flooded Cocklebiddy Cave in the Nullarbor Plain. Whenever they could save a little money from his photography or her work as a temporary secretary, they spent it exploring caves.

Francis Le Guen was a friend of French cave researcher Michel Siffre, 49, a man who was himself driven to near madness after spending 205 days and nights in a cave near Del Rio, Tex., in 1972. After two months in the Texas cave, Siffre began to feel like a prisoner. He became paranoid about fungus that grew everywhere and feared it would invade his lungs and hair. He became preoccupied with an American Indian legend that rabies could be contracted by inhaling the dust from a cave.

Nearly broken mentally and financially by his cave episode, divorced from the woman who had acted as his ground crew in Texas, Siffre gave up cave isolation studies, disappearing for eight years, he said, in the jungles of Guatemala.

Considered a Pioneer

Although the merits of his cave studies are sometimes disputed in French scientific circles, he is considered a pioneer and important researcher by other scholars, including a professor of medicine at the University of Minnesota, Franz Halberg, who is the so-called "father of chrono-biology."

"Some people think he is a bad boy," Halberg said, "but Siffre does what nobody else will do. He has, by far, the longest records of people in isolation. Others who have studied similar situations have done it for weeks; he has done it for months."

A few years ago, after the long hours flown by British pilots during the Falkland Islands War with Argentina renewed military interest in chrono-biological research, Siffre decided "to make a comeback." After struggling to obtain money and equipment, he came up with the plan to place a woman in a cave in France for more than three months.

Veronique Le Guen volunteered and was accepted. On Aug. 10, she descended alone into the well-stocked cave.

Last week she finally emerged from the cave and fell into the arms of her husband.

"I could no longer hold back the violent sobs that shook and overwhelmed me," she said, describing the reunion. "If I had not held on with all my power and if he had not gripped me in his strong arms, trembling with emotion, I would have fallen to my knees. It was finally over."

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