The Power of Total Isolation: Why We Hate Being Alone

Complete isolation breeds a kind of mental anguish rarely faced by our ancestors.

Are we even remotely aware of what happens inside our minds when we are completely physically and mentally isolated? Sensory deprivation tank, which were originally created in the 1950’s to study human consciousness, may shed some light on the topic.

Isolation Chambers and Sensory Processing

A sensory deprivation tank, also called an “isolation tank” or “float tank”, consists of a dark and windowless box, which is big enough to hold an adult. The participant lies in a lukewarm saline solution, with no or minimal clothing. This saline solution creates a sensation of “floating”. It is almost impossible to see anything in the pitch-black darkness of the tank, even your own hand, in front of your face. Furthermore, the participant cannot sense any form of smell, taste or sound (except the sound made by one own self). The idea behind this is to block out any sensory stimulation in full measure. Fundamentally, a person loses the sense of sight, sound, touch, taste and smell in the tank.

Bewildering effects are observed while the incoming sensory stimulation is totally blocked out or minimalized.

According to neuropsychology, the human brain was formulated to perceive sensory information. Elementarily, our mind receives information which comes through our five sensory modalities (I.e., touch, taste, smell, hearing and vision). In brief, via evolution, our brains were trained to receive incoming stimuli. This perceived information is used to influence behavioural patterns which act as a force of guidance to face the world. As we human beings are the most social animals on planet earth, many of these behavioural decisions include a journey throughout the social world.

Ancestral Brains, Modern Problems

From an evolutionary stand point, man’s adapted mind is not really capable of handling conditions related to the concept of modern isolation. For nearly five million years, the human mind has been threatened by numerous adaptive difficulties, posed by our social environment. (For example, deciphering emotional expressions, sharing one’s internal mental state to other and recognising cheaters during social interactions, etc.) Therefore, we have developed a psychological repository which contains devices to handle those social problems.

The mental structure of the hominid is furnished with numerous formulas to handle social problems. However, it wasn’t shaped to face total physical or mental seclusion. This isolation leads to the rise and circulation of various mental conditions that we have seen in solitary imprisonment blocks in prisons throughout the world.

Prisoner in the Hole

The system of solitary imprisonment is widely used throughout the world by the criminal justice section. It is used as a way to check upon unruly inhabitants. Broadly, this method includes an occupant, who is placed in an isolated cell with minimised or no social communication. Although this is a popular practice, there are massive roofs that expose the negative psychological impacts. Social seclusion may lead to many mental illnesses including depression, anxiety, self-harm and increased arousal.

In the notorious 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment of D.Phil Zimbardo, one of the subject participants, who was randomly assigned to the task of being the inhabitant, prisoner 819, denied to consume his sausages when asked to do so by the on duty guards. Eventually, the inmate was moved to the “hole” – an improvised cell which was basically a closet – as a form of punishment for not obeying the orders. The on duty guards felt necessary to affirm their supremacy on him to put an end to the uprising, as he was the pioneer of the prisoner revolt. This caused him to be effected emotionally, and Dr.Zimbardo himself had to remind him that this was just an experiment.

Needless to say, factors like the period of isolation, age and previous mental conditions should be taken into consideration as potential psychological health hazards while discussing the effects of solitary imprisonment. Recurring social exclusion certainly has a collective effect that may have different impacts on young and older people. This progressive psychological prototype of solitary imprisonment accentuates the “lack of fit” between the circumstances faced by our ancestors and the modern social context of our present society.

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