The Perils of Social Isolation
When human contact is cut off, the brain may manufacture social experiences.
Posted Nov 12, 2016
Humans are hardwired to interact with others, especially during times of stress. When we go through a trying ordeal alone, a lack of emotional support and friendship can increase our anxiety and hinder our coping ability.
This message was driven home in the recent thriller Shut In. In the film, Naomi Watts plays a widowed child psychologist who lives in isolation in rural New England with her son, who is comatose and bedridden as a result of an automobile accident. Snowed in and withdrawn from the outside world, Watts’ character descends into a desperate existence. It soon becomes difficult for her to distinguish the phantasms of her imagination from the reality of the creepy goings-on in her apparently haunted house. (See the trailer for Shut In.)
Shut In isn’t the first movie to use isolation as a vehicle for madness. The characters played by Jack Nicholson in The Shining and Tom Hanks in Castaway found themselves in similar predicaments. Although these movies are fictional, the depicted toll on a protagonist’s psyche from being alone for so long is based on the very real science of social isolation.
The Importance of Human Connection
Yes, other people can be irritating. But they are also our greatest source of comfort, and an impressive amount of psychological research underscores the importance of human contact.
Rejection by others psychologically wounds us more deeply than almost anything else, and research by neuroscientists reveals that ostracism can lead to feeling actual physical pain. Other studies confirm that loneliness isn’t good for anyone’s health. It increases levels of stress hormones in the body and leads to poor sleep, a compromised immune system, and, in the elderly, cognitive decline. The damage that solitary confinement inflicts on the mental health of prison inmates has also been well-documented.
Alone in an unchanging environment, the sensory information available to us, and the ways in which we process it, can change in unpredictable ways. For example, we normally spend most of our time attending to and processing external stimuli from the physical world around us. However, monotonous stimulation from our surroundings may cause us to turn our attention inward, which most of us have much less experience handling.
This can lead to a profoundly altered state of consciousness. We may begin to question what’s going on in our surroundings: Is that creaking sound upstairs just your old house pushing back against the wind, or something more sinister? This ambivalence leaves us frozen in place and wallowing in unease—especially if we’re alone. When we’re uncertain, the first thing we usually do is to look to the reactions of others to figure out what is going on. Without others with whom to share information and reactions, ambiguity becomes very hard to resolve. When this happens, our mind can quickly race to the darkest possible conclusions.
Unpleasant things can also happen when small groups of people experience isolation together. Much of what we know about this phenomenon has been gathered from observing the experiences of volunteers at research stations in Antarctica, especially during the “wintering-over” period. Antarctica's extreme temperatures, long periods of darkness, alien landscapes, and severely reduced sensory input create a perfect natural laboratory for studying the effects of isolation and confinement. Volunteers in these studies experience changes in appetite and sleep patterns. Some stop being able to accurately track the passage of time and lose the ability to concentrate. The boredom that results from being around the same people, with limited sources of entertainment, causes a lot of stress—and everyone else’s mannerisms become a grating, annoying, and inescapable source of torment.
Perhaps the strangest thing that can happen to someone in isolation is the experience of a “sensed presence,” or the feeling that another person—or a supernatural being—is with us.
Sensed presences usually appear in environments with static physical and social stimulation, such as when you’re by yourself in a quiet, remote place—just like Watts’ character in Shut In. Low temperature and high levels of stress are also common ingredients.
Some of the most compelling descriptions of sensed presences come from lone sailors, mountain climbers, and Arctic explorers who have experienced hallucinations and out-of-body experiences. In one amazing 1895 incident, Joshua Slocum, the first person to circumnavigate the globe in a sailboat singlehandedly, said he saw and spoke with the pilot of Christopher Columbus’s ship The Pinta. Slocum claimed that the pilot steered his boat through heavy weather as he lay ill with food poisoning.
The vividness of a presence can range from a vague feeling of being watched to seeing a seemingly real person. It could be a god, a spirit, an ancestor, or a personal acquaintance. A famous example occurred in 1933, when British explorer Frank Smythe attempted to climb Mt. Everest alone. He became so convinced that someone else was accompanying him on his climb that he even offered a piece of cake to his invisible partner.
Possible explanations for a sensed presence include the movement of boats (if sailing solo) and atmospheric or geomagnetic activity. Stress, lack of oxygen, monotonous stimulation, or a buildup of hormones can trigger changes in brain chemistry that induce altered states of consciousness. There’s actually exciting new evidence from a research group led by neuroscientist Olaf Blanke that stimulating specific brain regions can trick people into feeling the presence of a ghostly apparition.
Although sensed presences are most frequently reported by people in weird or dangerous places, it’s not unreasonable to assume that these experiences can occur in more mundane surroundings. People who have lost a loved one may shut themselves off from the outside world and rarely leave home. The loneliness and isolation, coupled with high levels of stress and unchanging sensory stimulation, may produce the same biological conditions that trigger a “visit” from the recently departed. Studies indicate that almost half of widowed, elderly Americans report having hallucinations of their late spouse. These experiences often seem to be a healthy coping mechanism and a normal part of grieving.
What does this say about the way we’re wired? It’s clear that meaningful connection to other people is as essential to our health as the air we breathe. Given that prolonged periods of social isolation can crack even the hardiest of individuals, perhaps in the absence of actual human contact our brains may manufacture social experiences in an attempt to preserve our sanity.