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By Michael Bond
14 May 2014
When people are isolated from human contact, their mind can do some truly
bizarre things, says Michael Bond. Why does this happen?
Sarah Shourd’s mind began to slip after about two months into her incarceration. She heard phantom
footsteps and flashing lights, and spent most of her day crouched on all fours, listening through a gap in
the door.

That summer, the 32-year-old had been hiking with two friends in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan
when they were arrested by Iranian troops after straying onto the border with Iran. Accused of spying,
they were kept in solitary confinement in Evin prison in Tehran, each in their own tiny cell. She endured
almost 10,000 hours with little human contact before she was freed. One of the most disturbing effects
was the hallucinations.

“In the periphery of my vision, I began to see flashing lights, only to jerk my head around to find that
nothing was there,” she wrote in the New York Times in 2011. “At one point, I heard someone
screaming, and it wasn’t until I felt the hands of one of the friendlier guards on my face, trying to revive
me, that I realized the screams were my own.”

We all want to be alone from time to time, to escape the demands of our colleagues or the hassle of
crowds. But not alone alone. For most people, prolonged social isolation is all bad, particularly
mentally. We know this not only from reports by people like Shourd who have experienced it first-
hand, but also from psychological experiments on the effects of isolation and sensory deprivation,
some of which had to be called off due to the extreme and bizarre reactions of those involved. Why
does the mind unravel so spectacularly when we’re truly on our own, and is there any way to stop it?

Inside prison walls, solitude can play disturbing tricks on the mind
We’ve known for a while that isolation is physically bad for us. Chronically lonely people have higher
blood pressure, are more vulnerable to infection, and are also more likely to develop Alzheimer’s
disease and dementia. Loneliness also interferes with a whole range of everyday functioning, such as
sleep patterns, attention and logical and verbal reasoning. The mechanisms behind these effects are
still unclear, though what is known is that social isolation unleashes an extreme immune response – a
cascade of stress hormones and inflammation. This may have been appropriate in our early ancestors,
when being isolated from the group carried big physical risks, but for us the outcome is mostly harmful.

Yet some of the most profound effects of loneliness are on the mind. For starters, isolation messes with
our sense of time. One of the strangest effects is the ‘time-shifting’ reported by those who have
spent long periods living underground without daylight. In 1961, French geologist Michel Siffre led a
two-week expedition to study an underground glacier beneath the French Alps and ended up staying
two months, fascinated by how the darkness affected human biology. He decided to abandon his
watch and “live like an animal”. While conducting tests with his team on the surface, they discovered it
took him five minutes to count to what he thought was 120 seconds. 

A similar pattern of ‘slowing time’ was reported by Maurizio Montalbini, a sociologist and caving
enthusiast. In 1993, Montalbini spent 366 days in an underground cavern near Pesaro in Italy that had
been designed with Nasa to simulate space missions, breaking his own world record for time spent
underground. When he emerged, he was convinced only 219 days had passed. His sleep-wake cycles
had almost doubled in length. Since then, researchers have found that in darkness most people
eventually adjust to a 48-hour cycle: 36 hours of activity followed by 12 hours of sleep. The reasons are
still unclear.

After emerging from a nine week stint in underground darkness, Michel

Siffre needed to wear a blindfold to protect his eyes (Getty Images)
As well as their time-shifts, Siffre and Montalbini reported periods of mental instability too. But these
experiences were nothing compared with the extreme reactions seen in notorious sensory deprivation
experiments in the mid-20th Century.

In the 1950s and 1960s, China was rumoured to be using solitary confinement to “brainwash”
American prisoners captured during the Korean War, and the US and Canadian governments were all
too keen to try it out. Their defence departments funded a series of research programmes that might
be considered ethically dubious today.

The most extensive took place at McGill University Medical Center in Montreal, led by the psychologist
Donald Hebb. The McGill researchers invited paid volunteers – mainly college students – to spend days
or weeks by themselves in sound-proof cubicles, deprived of meaningful human contact. Their aim was
to reduce perceptual stimulation to a minimum, to see how their subjects would behave when almost
nothing was happening. They minimised what they could feel, see, hear and touch, fitting them with
translucent visors, cotton gloves and cardboard cuffs extending beyond the fingertips. As Scientific
American magazine reported at the time, they had them lie on U-shaped foam pillows to restrict
noise, and set up a continuous hum of air-conditioning units to mask small sounds.

After only a few hours, the students became acutely restless. They started to crave stimulation, talking,
singing or reciting poetry to themselves to break the monotony. Later, many of them became anxious
or highly emotional. Their mental performance suffered too, struggling with arithmetic and word
association tests.

But the most alarming effects were the hallucinations. They would start with points of light, lines or
shapes, eventually evolving into bizarre scenes, such as squirrels marching with sacks over their
shoulders or processions of eyeglasses filing down a street. They had no control over what they saw:
one man saw only dogs; another, babies.

Some of them experienced sound hallucinations as well: a music box or a choir, for instance. Others
imagined sensations of touch: one man had the sense he had been hit in the arm by pellets fired from
guns. Another, reaching out to touch a doorknob, felt an electric shock.

When they emerged from the experiment they found it hard to shake this altered sense of reality,
convinced that the whole room was in motion, or that objects were constantly changing shape and
Distressing end

The researchers had hoped to observe their subjects over several weeks, but the trial was cut short
because they became too distressed to carry on. Few lasted beyond two days, and none as long as a
week. Afterwards, Hebb wrote in the journal American Psychologist that the results were “very
unsettling to us… It is one thing to hear that the Chinese are brainwashing their prisoners on the other
side of the world; it is another to find, in your own laboratory, that merely taking away the usual sights,
sounds, and bodily contacts from a healthy university student for a few days can shake him, right down
to the base.”

In 2008, clinical psychologist Ian Robbins recreated Hebb’s experiment in collaboration with the BBC,
isolating six volunteers for 48 hours in sound-proofed rooms in a former nuclear bunker. The results
were similar. The volunteers suffered anxiety, extreme emotions, paranoia and significant deterioration
in their mental functioning. They also hallucinated: a heap of 5,000 empty oyster shells; a snake;
zebras; tiny cars; the room taking off; mosquitoes; fighter planes buzzing around.

A clip from BBC Horizon’s Total Isolation experiment –  read more information about the programme

Why does the perceptually deprived brain play such tricks? Cognitive psychologists believe that the
part of the brain that deals with ongoing tasks, such as sensory perception, is accustomed to dealing
with a large quantity of information, such as visual, auditory and other environmental cues. But when
there is a dearth of information, says Robbins, “the various nerve systems feeding in to the brain’s
central processor are still firing off, but in a way that doesn’t make sense. So after a while the brain
starts to make sense of them, to make them into a pattern.” It creates whole images out of partial
ones. In other words, it tries to construct a reality from the scant signals available to it, yet it ends up
building a fantasy world.

Such mental failures should perhaps not surprise us. For one thing, we know that other primates do
not fare well in isolation. One of the most graphic examples is psychologist Harry Harlow’s experiments
on rhesus macaque monkeys at the University of Wisconsin-Madison during the 1960s, in which he
deprived them of social contact after birth for months or years. They became, he observed,
“enormously disturbed” even after 30 days, and after a year were “obliterated” socially, incapable of
interaction of any kind. (A comparable social fracturing has been observed in humans: consider the
children rescued from Romanian orphanages in the early 1990s, who after being almost entirely
deprived of close social contact since birth grew up with serious behavioural and attachment issues.)
We may crave solitude occasionally, but in the long term it's
not good for us physically or mentally (Getty Images)

Secondly, we derive meaning from our emotional states largely through contact with others. Biologists
believe that human emotions evolved because they aided co-operation among our early ancestors who
benefited from living in groups. Their primary function is social. With no one to mediate our feelings of
fear, anger, anxiety and sadness and help us determine their appropriateness, before long they deliver
us a distorted sense of self, a perceptual fracturing or a profound irrationality. It seems that left too
much to ourselves, the very system that regulates our social living can overwhelm us.

Take the 25,000 inmates held in “super-maximum security” prisons in the US today. Without social
interaction, supermax prisoners have no way to test the appropriateness of their emotions or their
fantastical thinking, says Terry Kupers, a forensic psychiatrist at the Wright Institute in Berkeley,
California, who has interviewed thousands of supermax prisoners. This is one of the reasons many
suffer anxiety, paranoia and obsessive thoughts. Craig Haney, a psychologist at the University of
California, Santa Cruz, and a leading authority on the mental health of inmates in the US, believes that
some of them purposefully initiate brutal confrontations with prison staff just to reaffirm their own
existence – to remember who they are.

Coping strategy

Social isolation is not always debilitating, however. Are some better than others at coping? And can you
train yourself to resist the worst effects? Here scientists have fewer hard answers, but we can at least
look to the lessons of individuals who thrived – or floundered – under isolation.

When Shourd was imprisoned in Iran, she was arguably among the least-equipped people to cope,
because her incarceration came out of the blue. People in her circumstances have their world suddenly
inverted, and there is nothing in the manner of their taking – no narrative of sacrifice, or enduring for a
greater good – to help them derive meaning from it. They must somehow find meaning in their
predicament – or mentally detach themselves from their day-to-day reality, which is a monumental
task when alone.

Hussain Al-Shahristani managed it. He was Saddam Hussein’s chief nuclear adviser before he was
tortured and shut away in Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad after refusing on moral grounds to
cooperate on the development of an atomic weapon. He kept his sanity during 10 years of solitary
confinement by taking refuge in a world of abstractions, making up mathematical problems which he
then tried to solve. He is now deputy energy minister of Iraq. Edith Bone, a medical academic and
translator, followed a similar strategy during the seven years she spent imprisoned by the Hungarian
communist government after World War Two, constructing an abacus out of stale bread and counting
out an inventory of her vocabulary in the six languages she spoke fluently.

Some believe a military background may help prevent the

worst effects of isolation (Thinkstock)

Such experiences may be easier to take if you belong to a military organisation. Keron Fletcher, a
consultant psychiatrist who has helped debrief and treat hostages, says mock detention and
interrogation exercises of the kind he himself underwent while serving with the Royal Air Force are a
good preparation for the shock of capture. “They teach you the basics of coping,” he says. “Also, you
know your buddies will be busting a gut to get you back in one piece. I think the military are less likely
to feel helpless or hopeless. Hopelessness and helplessness are horrible things to live with and they
erode morale and coping ability.”

US senator John McCain is a good example of how a military mindset bestows psychological
advantages. His five-and-a-half years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, during which he refused to yield
to his interrogators, actually seemed to strengthen him. Though note what he had to say about the two
years he spent in isolation: “It’s an awful thing, solitary. It crushes your spirit and weakens your
resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment… The onset of despair is immediate,
and it is a formidable foe.”
Extreme reality

Psychologists who study how people cope with isolation have learnt much from solo explorers and
mountaineers. For many adventurers deprived of human company – albeit voluntarily – the landscape
itself can serve as an effective surrogate, drawing them out of themselves into the beauty or grandeur
of their surroundings. Norwegian psychologist Gro Sandal at the University of Bergen in Norway, who
has interviewed many adventurers about how they cope in extreme environments, says that
transcending the reality of their situation in this way is a common coping mechanism. “It makes them
feel safer. It makes them feel less alone.”

A similar psychological mechanism could explain why shipwrecked mariners marooned on islands have
been known to anthropomorphise inanimate objects, in some cases creating a cabal of imaginary
companions with whom to share the solitude. It sounds like madness but is likely a foil against it. Take
the way sailor Ellen MacArthur nicknamed her trimaran “Mobi”, during her record-breaking solo
circumnavigation of the globe in 2005. During the voyage she signed emails to her support team “love
e and mobi”, and in her published account uses “we” rather than “I”.

Sailors have been known to combat the loneliness of the

ocean by anthropomorphising inanimate objects

There is no more poignant illustration of the power of solitude to sink one person while lifting up
another than the stories of Bernard Moitessier and Donald Crowhurst, two of the competitors in the
1968 Sunday Times Golden Globe round-the-world yacht race. The trophy, offered to the first sailor to
complete a solo non-stop circumnavigation of the globe, was won in 313 days by Robin Knox-Johnston,
the only one out of nine starters to finish. He seemed to relish being alone with his boat, but not as
much as Moitessier, an ascetic Frenchman who practised yoga on deck and fed cheese to the
shearwater birds that shadowed him. Moitessier found the experience so fulfilling, and the idea of
returning to civilisation so distasteful, that he abandoned the race despite a good chance of victory and
just kept on sailing, eventually landing in Tahiti after travelling more than halfway round the world
again. “I continue non-stop because I am happy at sea,” he declared, “and perhaps because I want to
save my soul.”

Crowhurst, meanwhile, was in trouble from the start. He left England ill-prepared and sent fake reports
about his supposed progress through the southern seas while never actually leaving the Atlantic.
Drifting aimlessly for months off the coast of South America, he became increasingly depressed and
lonely, eventually retreating to his cabin and consolidating his fantasies in a rambling 25,000-word
philosophical treatise before jumping overboard. His body was never found.

What message can we take from these stories of endurance and despair? The obvious one is that we
are, as a rule, considerably diminished when disengaged from others. Isolation may very often be the
“sum total of wretchedness”, as the writer Thomas Carlyle put it. However, a more upbeat assessment
seems equally valid: it is possible to connect, to find solace beyond ourselves, even when we are alone.
It helps to be prepared, and to be mentally resilient. But we shouldn’t underestimate the power of our
imagination to knock over prison walls, penetrate icy caves or provide make-believe companions to
walk with us.

This article is based on the book  The Power of Others  by Michael Bond (Oneworld Publications).

Extreme Isolation Questions /18 Name:

1. What are some health concerns that face people who are chronically lonely?

2. How and why does our immune system react to social loneliness?

3. What are the effects of extreme isolation on our sense of time?

4. How did the McGill experiments on sensory deprivation end? Why?

5. Why does the sensory deprived brain play tricks on us?

6. What are the consequences of early childhood isolation?

7. Why is isolation emotionally bad for people?

8. What is a possible explanation of brutal encounters between inmates and guards in supermax

9. How does military experience benefit people faced with extremely isolating experiences?