A mind left utterly to its own devices...
August 14, 2014 3:08 PM   Subscribe

How extreme isolation warps the mind Among other things, extreme isolation can warp our perception of time, lead to both visual and auditory hallucinations, and impair our social functioning.
posted by Michele in California (26 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
Is it just me who's seeing a blank page and 'Backend not available' when accessing that link?
posted by turnips at 3:12 PM on August 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Link is working here.
posted by Solomon at 3:15 PM on August 14, 2014

Another article that doesn't include Veronique Le Guen who spent 111 days in a cave 262 feet below ground in 1986 as a sensory-deprivation experiment. She ended up committing suicide: "Her husband Francis Le Guen said that since the experiment, 'she had had an emptiness inside her which she was unable to communicate'."
Link to 6 articles at the LA Times archives.
posted by Zack_Replica at 3:33 PM on August 14, 2014 [14 favorites]

These days we can communicate with other people through the Internet, but still be isolated from social contact with other humans. (It's a condition I'm really familiar with.) The effects are the same as solitary confinement, but they take longer to manifest. You lose track of time. Weeks go by in a day, and sometimes a day feels like a week. You become acutely familiar with every noise in your environment, and when you hear something unfamiliar it's terrifying. You begin to attach an absurd amount of importance to any visible sign of life, like the movements of animals in the backyard. Ordinary human tasks like eating and dressing feel less and less important, and after a while you start to lose interesting in everything and you can feel your personality dissolving, bit by bit...

If some kind of misfortune leaves you isolated, even the midst of a city full of people, it's important to get help. Talk to the neighbors, get therapy, anything. Because the longer it goes on, the harder it is to change. But isolation is not inevitable. If you bang on the walls long enough, someone will answer.
posted by Kevin Street at 3:51 PM on August 14, 2014 [10 favorites]

I wonder how much of Sarah Shourd’s problems were less to do with being alone, and more to do with a lack of stimulation. The article doesn't say what she actually had in the cell with her. If it was just her and her clothes and occasionally some food, I think that's different to her having those things and also some puzzle books and a view out of the window and a television and a routine.

The time stretching mentioned by Michel Siffre could be attributed to him not having a watch. Humans don't have an internal chronometer. Our concepts of "day" and "season" and "year" are governed by external factors. There's not really a way, I don't think*, for a human be aware of seconds or minutes passing without some form of counting going on, whether mentally or by watching a clock. Or hearing a metronome. Get a bunch of people together in a large room and let them interact, but prevent them from discussing the passage of time. I'd be interested to see how long people thought they'd all been in that room. Couple that with the concept of "time flies when you're having fun". This book talks a little more about that.

The article does go on to discuss sensory deprivation causing mental instability, which seems to fit. It's pure evo-psych, but an animal is designed to be aware of the environment surrounding it, and to respond to changes. An earthworm senses moisture levels in soil and either comes to the surface or burrows deeper in response. Something as relatively complex as a human being would likely need more or different stimulation. I'd like to see these experiments done with people who have access to a large range of sensory stimuli, but no people. I'm curious to see how changing the stimuli available would change things as well - one person in a room with monotonous stimuli while another person has the books, furniture, etc in the room changed on a weekly basis, for example. Lack of social contact will have an effect, to be sure. I wonder how other forms of stimulation would ameliorate the negative effects.

Which now has me wondering how much of the human brain is used primarily for interacting with other human beings. If large portions of the brain aren't being stimulated, what happens to them? If there's no change in what is around you, can you actually continue to say "this is me and that is the chair" or does you brain start to lose the left-brain ability to say I Am and shut down, thereby giving the right-brain the chance to do its thing? Bit more about that here.

Which brings to mind the concept of the hermit. I can't remember the details, sadly, but I came across an article about a woman hermit, possibly in a Sara Maitland book, who lived alone by choice.

So many questions. I guess I know what I'm doing this weekend.

*please let me know if I'm wrong.
posted by Solomon at 3:58 PM on August 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

I spent 90 minutes in a sensory deprivation tank and had one of the most surreal and frightening experiences. I can't imagine actually being isolated in this way.
posted by Marinara at 4:01 PM on August 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Thus is something that worries me a lot. I have a health condition that has left me partially home bound and it's almost certainly had some effect on my mental status. I try to make time to visit with friends, but can't as often as I would like. And I have experienced many of the effects Kevin Street so eloquently describes. I have been convinced the house is going to collapse because of the perfectly normal creaking and popping a house makes.

What makes it even harder is societies perception of illness. Many people wonder why you can go to lunch with a friend but can't work. Because lunch with a friend is literally part of my health and well being. Getting out and socializing is part of the occupational therapy, and it's been part of my pain management therapy. Getting out is hard. But the programs I am or have been in emphasize it because it's necessary for the emotional well being of people with chronic conditions.

The fact that we use it as a punishment is mind boggling. I'm describing semi-isolation with many outlets to help mitigate some of the problems. I can't imagine how horrible it is in prison.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 4:23 PM on August 14, 2014 [11 favorites]

I guess they forgot to mention, in talking about Chinese brainwashing, that McGill played host to CIA backed sensory deprivation experiments on mental patients too.
posted by Phalene at 4:33 PM on August 14, 2014

[insert clever name here],
I was bedridden for about 3.5 months and largely housebound for years afterwards. Here is some of what I recall:

As much as I could, I changed up the sheets and bedding of my king-sized bed. My bed was basically my whole world and just making sure I put completely different bedding on it any time we changed sheets helped keep it from driving me utterly insane.

The blank wall my bed faced became like some kind of personal demon. I could not stand looking at it anymore. At some point, we covered it with a folding screen. Later, I put up curtains as sound proofing and so I wouldn't have to look at that damn wall ever again. I came to really loathe it with an almost visceral reaction to it.

When I was younger, I was one of those people who always seemed to just know what time it was and I certainly knew what day of the week it was and what date of the year it was. This had already eroded for various reasons but, yes, I just no longer had any idea what day it was or anything like that.

As soon as I stopped sleeping 18 to 20 hours a day and was able to be up a bit, I set up a computer near my bed and arranged it such that I could watch TV on my computer from my bed in order to have as much mental stimulation as possible in spite of still having severe physical limitations. I gradually worked my way up to more activity over a very long period of time. But even if I could not be physically active, having some kind of mental input really helped me stop losing my marbles.

For a time, I was kind of agoraphobic when I left the roughly 1000 sq ft apartment I lived in. Compared to the bed that was practically my whole world for a time, the outside world seemed so huge and like I could just float away into the sky or something. This impression was far worse on bright sunny days. It was easier to cope if I left the house in the evening as it was getting dark. That wasn't so overwhelming.

Games also became a real sanity saver for me. I played a lot of marathon SimCity to cope as best I could. I also spent a lot of time online and that connection to other people became a real lifeline.

There are still things I struggle with but I am getting my health back and, with it, my sanity. I am better these days at remembering what day of the week it is and things like that. A lot of that stuff is well behind me, though I don't imagine I will ever be the same as I once was. However, for me, it was kind of a chance to deconstruct a life that didn't work in some critical ways and rebuild it from scratch. So I am mostly okay with how it has gone. But it was, without a doubt, a headtrip.

My oldest son is very aspie and both face blind and time blind. I sent him the link to this article and I am wondering about the connection between his social deficits and his utter lack of sense of time. I mean I know his lack of sense of time is socially problematic, but I never before wondered if there was a deeper brain connection between the two issues -- like maybe there is some biological thing about his brain that both makes him not much care for social contact and also makes him unable to tell time. I don't feel I am saying that very well. I just found the article very thought provoking in terms of "could these two issues in my son somehow be connected in a root cause way deep in his brain?"
posted by Michele in California at 4:41 PM on August 14, 2014 [11 favorites]

It's definitely possible for seemingly different brain functions to be close to one another in the brain. V. S. Ramachandran has done work on phantom limbs:

Ramachandran tested his theory by blindfolding patients so that they wouldn't know where he was touching them — and then touched various parts of the body. Sure enough, when touching a patient's face on the same side as an amputated limb, the patient reported that he could feel the sensation in his phantom missing limb.

I have no idea how this translates to your son's experiences, or even if it does. If the social interaction part of the brain is close to the concept of time part of the brain, it's possible that a developmental difference in the physical structure of the brain could be causing both conditions, even though they appear to be unrelated.

Social isolation is cheap, easy and very very effective as a punishment. I guess if you're in a position of power and able to punish someone, those are some points in its favour. It's horrifying that humans do this to other humans, for sure.

Also see: sent to Coventry.
posted by Solomon at 4:57 PM on August 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Big difference between complete sensory deprivation and being alone (but healthy) in your house. One would be very disturbing and unhinging while the other is my vacation.
If the weather outside is -25 or colder staying inside for weeks on end is great but I am sure that cabin fever would set in eventually.
posted by Gwynarra at 5:36 PM on August 14, 2014

There's a big difference between being isolated by choice, and being isolated against your will. Just knowing that you can be with people again (even if it's an annoying "I've got to go back to work" kind of thought) takes away the worst effects.

I'm guessing that sensory deprivation can change from relaxing to horrible when you start to feel you've had enough, but it's not over until someone lets you out.
posted by Kevin Street at 5:48 PM on August 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

Big difference between complete sensory deprivation and being alone (but healthy) in your house. One would be very disturbing and unhinging while the other is my vacation.

This might also be one of those introvert/extrovert things. I am a middle of the road extrovert. I need some time to myself. Being around people all the time, non-stop, starts driving me batty, but I do not do well with being alone for long stretches. When I am really sick in a way that makes me mentally unstable, my adult sons make sure to not leave me alone. If it is really bad, they make sure I am not left alone even for running brief errands. Someone sits with me or walks to the store with me or whatever. My darkest moods, rooted in health problems and other issues, are at their worst when I am alone. The difference is pretty dramatic.
posted by Michele in California at 5:59 PM on August 14, 2014

Yeah there's separate things being conflated here: being sensorily deprived, being alone, and being isolated. The distinction between being alone and being isolated is essentially one of agency. When one is isolated one feels powerless, for example due to being externally restrained, or from feeling that one's actions aren't supported by others. It can be seen from this that one can be isolated even within a group of people.

I'd be willing to agree that lengthy sensory deprivation and/or isolation are harmful, but I don't think being alone should be lumped in there. One might find one's work totally absorbing, for example. Or one might eschew human company for that of a dog, or a deity.
posted by um at 6:01 PM on August 14, 2014 [5 favorites]

That prison systems use solitary confinement at all is only marginally less barbaric than executing prisoners.

I'm anti-execution, but if I were in jail for life? I would beg to be executed before being put in solitary.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 8:39 PM on August 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've had a few different jobs which had both very long hours and almost zero interaction with other human beings. I started to go a little bit crazy during that time -- making irrational decisions, feeling extremely stressed for no reason, not being self aware enough to know what was happening. Not recommended. Obviously enforced isolation would be far worse.
posted by miyabo at 10:13 PM on August 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'd be really interested to see how an experienced Buddhist monk would handle this sort of isolation - seems like they'd be all, 'oh, business as usual then.'

Some of the descriptions in this article really reminded me of various ideas and practices found in Vipassana meditation (e.g. the brain's need for stimuli, sense of self resolved via reference to other humans); honestly, Vipassana is pretty much a form of self-imposed solitary confinement.
posted by obliterati at 10:39 PM on August 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm thinking that self-imposed solitude isn't at all the same thing. That sort of meditation practice is about solitude in pursuit of a specific goal, and pretty much not at all what's being discussed here.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 7:46 AM on August 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Social isolation vs physical isolation vs sensory isolation. The loneliest cowboy who sees people every 2 years.
posted by Damienmce at 8:05 AM on August 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

And lets not forget those Japanese soldiers who keep popping up thinking the war didn't end.
posted by Damienmce at 8:06 AM on August 15, 2014

I'd be really interested to see how an experienced Buddhist monk would handle this sort of isolation - seems like they'd be all, 'oh, business as usual then.'

Except most Buddhist monks still live as part of a community -- meditation is usually done as a group (although I am sure this differs from community to community), and monks still gather for work and other activities. They aren't necessarily chatting and hanging out, but they are interacting with other people.

One of the reasons is that lots of intensive solo meditation seems to bring up things that its best to deal with in community -- experiences that are best handled with guidance and outside perspectives. Contrast with this FPP.
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:27 AM on August 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

It was Altered States that made me first realise how impactful sensory deprivation could be. Not that the movie's believable (although it's a good movie), I just never actually gave the matter any thought before.
posted by Captain Fetid at 9:37 AM on August 15, 2014

I've had a few different jobs which had both very long hours and almost zero interaction with other human beings. I started to go a little bit crazy during that time -- making irrational decisions, feeling extremely stressed for no reason, not being self aware enough to know what was happening. Not recommended. Obviously enforced isolation would be far worse.

It sounds like your work was basically enforced part-time isolation. If you don't work, you don't get paid. For most people, that is a serious threat to survival. So most people will put up with shit from their job that they wouldn't put up with for any other reason. "I need my job" was a common refrain from coworkers at BigCo as an explanation for why they did or did not (or would or would not) do a particular thing. And it's basically a trope that many people would cuss out their boss and promptly quit/be fired if they won the lottery.
posted by Michele in California at 9:38 AM on August 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

A writer and activist I've been following for a while Deborah Jiang Stein has written about her history as a BABY in solitary confinement. I'm not sure I can find the words to describe the level of horror and rage that human beings who supposedly (HAHAHA) serve justice would put a mother and infant in solitary confinement, let alone anyone.

Not to mention that our prisons are filled with mentally ill people, survivors of child abuse/neglect/and familial poverty, people with cognitive deficits and learning disabilities, and non violent drug users who need support, therapy, understanding, and care.

This is one of those issues in the world that make it very challenging to remind myself that I'm a pacifist. I try to remember that those who house and retain violent dangerous people, whether criminal or mentally ill-- get secondary trauma and carry a very heavy load and are tasked with making very terrible -no win- decisions on a daily basis (do you hold this person down and force them to eat or let them die, do you force a person to bath or let them get filthy and potentially spread disease to people around them?) when people have mental breakdowns and cry and scream how do you deal with the horror of hearing and not wanting to pump them with meds to shut them up-- or beat it out of them or --- lock them away somewhere out of ear shot?

I try to remember that sometimes compassion, wisdom, assessment of facts and research into the origins of criminal behavior and being willing to understand how horrible behaviors arise in criminals- may also be the same strategy needed to understand the crimes committed by those tasked with running such places, who become numb to the harms they are tasked with carry out (restraining people is not pleasant no matter how nice you try to make prisons) and that while anger and rage may play a role in changing this, understanding, compassion and better resources and training requirements for those running, managing, planning, and working in prisons may also be part of those changes- and understanding that it's a very difficult weight we are asking of people who run these organizings, a task that people who are perhaps already a little emotionally numb to human suffering or even somewhat sadistic or power hungry may be more capable of carrying out without breaking completely inside.
posted by xarnop at 9:45 AM on August 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Damienmce: "And lets not forget those Japanese soldiers who keep popping up thinking the war didn't end."

The last one of those surrendered in 1974, so I'm pretty confident there won't be any more popping up.
posted by Chrysostom at 6:24 PM on August 26, 2014

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