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The Psychology of David Bowie’s Major Tom

Previous research by Brcic (now at the University of the Fraser Valley in British Columbia, Canada) and Suedfeld on astronauts has also found that mission commanders appeared to have an intuitive understanding of the importance of social support.

These patterns may be increasingly important as crew diversity, mission duration and distance from Earth increase, but this current study already found ample evidence for team spirit even among veterans who flew in the earlier years of the Space Age.

Seeking social support was the number one coping strategy deployed by the cosmonauts in this study – this coping skill is defined as efforts to obtain sympathy, help, information, or emotional support from others.

Problem Solving

The number two coping skill was ‘Problem-Solving’ which is defined as deliberate, rational, cognitively oriented, efforts to change or escape the situation. Third in popularity was coping skill endurance/obedience/effort (EOE), and refers to trying to persevere and meet demands.

Coping strategies that cosmonauts don’t favor might provide a useful pointer as to what are not helpful things to do in a crisis. After all, this is a unique group of survivors of ultimate high stress predicaments; the best of the best.

Sometimes in life it’s just as crucial, if not more so, to know what not to do, as it is to understand what action to take.

Coping Strategies

At the bottom of their list of coping strategies came ‘denial’ – ignoring or minimizing the seriousness of the problem, not believing in its reality. Second from bottom was ‘supernatural protection’ or the invocation of religious or superstitious practices and efforts to gain such protection by, for example, prayer, lucky charms or amulets.

Also near the bottom of the list were the coping strategies of ‘distancing’ – defined as the effort to detach oneself emotionally from the situation; and ‘compartmentalization’ – encapsulating the problem psychologically so as to isolate it from other aspects of life.

In 1980, Bowie released a follow-up to ‘Space Oddity’ called ‘Ashes To Ashes,’ which has received particular attention in the light of Bowie’s recent death. In the lyrics, Major Tom experiences happiness drifting in space, but Ground Control concludes he must be a junkie.

The fact ‘Space  Oddity’ has been so massively successful, and that David Bowie revisited its themes on numerous occasions in later songs, particularly favoring the Major Tom character in his repertoire, suggests that escaping the planet and all its problems reflects a certain universal and deep psychological appeal.

Escapism

Escapism has long been a coping tactic with massive popular appeal. The psychedelia of the 1960’s with which David Bowie became linked, could be viewed psychologically as embracing ‘escape’ as a solution to life’s problems.

Roger Launius from the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum, Washington, DC, even argues in a recent investigation entitled ‘Escaping Earth: Human Spaceflight as Religion,’ that there is a deeply religious quality to our passion for space exploration. His paper, published in the academic journal Astropolitics: The International Journal of Space Politics & Policy, contends that human spaceflight could even be viewed as a new religion.

Yet the latest research finds that cosmonauts place ‘supernatural protection, or the invocation of religious or superstitious practices, very low down the list of preferred coping strategies.

In the song ‘Space Oddity,’ Ground Control wish ‘God’s love’ to protect Major Tom at take-off, but given the latest psychological findings, it’s not clear that many of the real Major Toms would have felt they needed it.

 

Raj Persaud and Peter Bruggen are joint podcast editors for the Royal College of Psychiatrists and also now have a free app on iTunes and Google Play store entitled ‘Raj Persaud in conversation’, which includes a lot of free information on the latest research findings in mental health, plus interviews with top experts from around the world.

 

Dr Raj Persaud’s new novel, Can’t Get You Out Of My Head, is based on a unique UK police unit that really does protect Buckingham Palace from fixated obsessives. The psychological thriller poses the question: Is love the most dangerous emotion?

Space walk image available from Shutterstock

The Psychology of David Bowie’s Major Tom