When the message came across her computer screen that time was up, Stefania Follini frowned and typed back, "How come?" The young Italian woman, who had spent the past 130 days alone in a cave near Carlsbad, N.Mex., was clearly confused. Deprived of sunlight, clocks or any other clues as to how much time had passed since she began an experiment to study the effects of isolation, Follini, only a few hours before, had estimated the date as March 14. It was, in fact, May 22.

After spending one more day underground so that researchers could gather last-minute data on her condition, the diminutive Rip Van Winkle popped up from the manhole that covered her cave's entrance. "I love the sun," said Follini, 27, as she smiled for a small army of newspeople. One of the first things that struck her when she returned to the surface was "the smell of other people," which she found "beautiful."

An unlikely mole, Follini, who works as an interior decorator in Ancona, Italy, admits she has little interest in the science behind the study. Motivated instead by a desire to get to know herself better, she gamely made herself at home 30 feet underground in a constantly lit 10-foot-by-20-foot wood-and-Plexiglas box. Her hideaway included a pair of computers—her only two-way communication link to the surface—a metal folding chair, a bedroll, a two-burner hot plate and a privy. Follini decorated her lair with construction-paper cutouts of grass, a tree and a cat.

For company she had a guitar and more than 400 books, including Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, works by playwright Luigi Pirandello and the poetry and songs of Bob Dylan. "And I had all sorts of friends," she says, "little mice, frogs and grasshoppers." The good thing about talking to mice, she says, is that I was always right." For exercise, Follini practiced judo, in which she holds a brown belt, and explored her cave. She took blood and urine samples, sent to the surface in a basket and wore a brain-wave monitor while she slept. Unable to shower, she took sponge baths.

The $200,000 experiment financed by various drug companies and Italian universities, was led by Italian sociologist and psychologist Dr. Maurizio Montalbini, who, with his wife, Antonella, and an assistant Dr. Andrea Galvagno, monitored Follini 24 hours a day from a trailer parked above the cave. Two video cameras and various microphones transmitted Follini's every movement and sound. On occasion Follini sang Italian folk songs or American cowboy music "to keep the people watching company and to make them happy," she says. Montalbini himself holds the world's record for living alone in a cave, having spent 210 days in a cavern near Ancona. Italy, in 1986 and 1987. Follini, who has been a friend of Montalbini's for 10 years, now holds the women's record in this seldom contested event

The project and its findings are already of interest to NASA, which is contemplating a manned mission to Mars that would take at least two years. Cut off from sunlight, Follini's body abandoned nor" mal day-to-day rhythms and switched to an internal clock. Without realizing, she took to staying awake for 24 hours at a stretch, then sleeping for 10. Change in hormonal production caused her to stop menstruating. Time, as she perceived it, ceased to be broken into increments but became "a continuous moment"

Follini at times showed signs of mild depression, though nothing serious. She emerged in a good state of mind, which she credits, in part to imagination. "It's important to be able to fantasize," says Stefania, "because it puts you in a different place." Understandably introspective, she feels changed by her time below. "I can do things now I didn't know I could do," she says. Still, she dismisses concern that her contribution to science was an ordeal. "It was," she says, "a very simple thing."

—Tim Allis, Michael Haederle in Carlsbad