Can Social Isolation Be Positive?

Insights into the psychology of solitude from the lives of hermits

Posted Mar 23, 2020

On April 4th, 2013, Christopher Knight was arrested for burglary. For most perpetrators, getting caught carries the possibility of jail time; the scary prospect of being removed from the rest of society. For Knight, however, the opposite was true. This encounter with the law marked the first human contact he had in 27 years. 

Knight lived most of his life as a hermit. At age 20, he left his steady job as a computer technician, said goodbye to no one, and abandoned society. For almost three decades, he lived in a small secluded camp without water, electricity, or even a campfire.

He avoided human contact by only venturing out at night to stockpile food and supplies from a nearby town. When local authorities caught him on one of these late-night raids, he was 47 years old, having never used the internet or sent an email. 

Photo by Sergei Akulich / Unsplash
Moments of genuine solitude are typically rare
Source: Photo by Sergei Akulich / Unsplash

Knight's self-imposed isolation starkly contrasts our natural disposition toward others. Humans are inherently social creatures and have a seemingly innate drive for interaction, camaraderie, and belonging. Prolonged periods without social contact are typically associated with deleterious effects on mental and physical health.

Despite these psychological truisms, solitude isn't always entirely negative. We get a rare glimpse of this upside this by examining people like Knight, who had every opportunity to be a part of society but instead went to great lengths to be alone. These self-reports converge onto the general insight that solitude presents a unique opportunity to explore a rare frontier of inner experience. 

Isolation, Solitude, and Sense of Self

Having only oneself for company provides an unmatched opportunity for introspection. One of the earliest and most thorough descriptions of this experience was the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne, who produced his timeless literary collection, Essais, while locking himself in his library, isolated from the rest of society for several years. 

Photo by Ed Robertson / Unsplash
For several years, Montaigne chose to be alone with only his books
Source: Photo by Ed Robertson / Unsplash

He spoke about the surprising depth of and camaraderie which he could experience within himself. He remarked, "Here our ordinary conversation must be between us and ourselves. We have a soul that can be turned upon itself ...it has the means to attack and the means to defend, the means to receive and the means to give." 

Five hundred years later, this sentiment was recently echoed by Mauro Morandi, who has lived alone for over three decades on a small island called Budelli off the coast of Italy. In a rare interview, he told CNN, "I understood that the most beautiful, dangerous, adventurous and gratifying journeys of all is the one inside yourself". 

Unperturbed by the usual chatter of the social world, others have spoken about gaining a profound sense of clarity in their perception. These accounts indicate that the internal concept of "self" melts away in the absence of others. Henry David Thoreau famously spent extended periods alone New England wilderness and remarked, "It's not until we have lost the world do we begin to find ourselves". 

Photo by Lukasz Szmigiel / Unsplash
New England forest: Thoreau's place of solitude
Source: Photo by Lukasz Szmigiel / Unsplash

Christopher Knight himself echoed a similar sentiment in the months after he re-entered society.

"Solitude bestows an increase in something valuable ... my perception. But ... when I applied my increased perception to myself, I lost my identity. There was no audience, no one to perform for ... To put it romantically, I was completely free."

These internal states are difficult to fully understand without experiencing them ourselves. What exactly does it feel like, subjectively, to be free in this way, or to find ourselves after losing the world? 

Self-reports can only take us so far. The Tao Te Ching, itself a product of intense solitude, hints at this paradox with its famous lines, “Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know”. In a general sense, however, they suggest that solitude can be a window into a rare and profound inner experience. 

Closing

It’s worth underlining that a life of prolonged solitude isn't for everyone. With very few notable exceptions, we humans are naturally social creatures. Everyone differs in their social needs, and in the degree to which others affect them. The people who have sought solitude had a personal constitution suited for life without others. 

The people who willingly turned their backs to society are rare, and the perspective they provide on the mind is equally unique. Knight, Thoreau, Montaigne, and many others throughout history were all hermetic by choice. For the rest of us, we may find a small degree of solace in their stories. 

References

Cacioppo, J. and Hawkley, L. (2003). "Social Isolation and Health, with an Emphasis on Underlying Mechanisms". Perspectives in Biology and Medicine. 46 (3): S39–52. CiteSeerX 10.1.1.203.4916. doi:10.1353/pbm.2003.0049. PMID 14563073.

Finkel, M. (2017) The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf

House, J. S. (2001). "Social Isolation Kills, But How and Why?". Psychosomatic Medicine. 63 (2): 273–4. doi:10.1097/00006842-200103000-00011. PMID 11292275., 

Laozi. ( 1972). Tao Te Ching. New York: Vintage Books

Marchetti, S. (March, 2020). Italian hermit living alone on an island says self-isolation is the ultimate journey. CNN Travel

Rolston, D. (March, 2020). Don’t take life so seriously: Montaigne’s lessons on the inner life. Aeon. https://aeon.co/ideas/dont-take-life-so-seriously-montaignes-lessons-on-the-inner-life