The brilliant 20th century philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre famously ended his play No Exit with the line, “Hell is Other People.” It’s not exactly infrequent that other people can get on our nerves and reaffirm the truth of this statement, at least a little bit. The social life of a human being is an extremely important facet of the human experience. While we may often bemoan and under-appreciate the existence of and our interactions with others, the importance of each of these things cannot be emphasized enough — and we as a society are failing pretty miserably, becoming increasingly more isolated and lonely as time goes on.
Not only does a healthy, affluent social life weigh heavily on our overall health, but a lack thereof can lead to some extremely devastating consequences. We are a social species, after all, by design, and as such, humans come with a built-in need for socialization. From the simple annoyances to the wonderful moments shared with friends and loved ones, even the bothersome coworker contributes greatly to a person’s overall mental health: we actually need to engage with others mentally, and with a variety of people, otherwise our mental health will plummet to the danger zone. The fact is, perceived isolation and loneliness has been described as a plague of modern society, and it most definitely is. This story seeks to show the devastating effects of loneliness on the human body and psyche, and question how we engage one another in our modern culture.
The Plague of Loneliness
Did you know that a full 25% of Americans report that they don’t have a single person in their lives that they’re confident in — someone that they can confide in with whatever may be going on in the minds? Did you know that a full 50% of Americans report not having any close friends outside of their immediate family? Provocative research conducted by a team a Duke University found these numbers to be true, noting a staggering decline from the comparatively modest 10% who felt lonely — the key word is lonely — in similar data they had taken way back in 1985. At least in the United States, and possibly in the western world entirely, people are becoming more lonely, even though the population is expanding and technology is providing us with a greater ability to contact others and meet people. Much of loneliness has to do with perception, which provides somewhat of an explanation, but what is going on with people that make them feel so far removed from others?
Let’s explore the different worlds of isolation and loneliness and see if we can find out what exactly is happening to us culturally and what the effects of each are.
Isolation and Loneliness
Isolation and loneliness aren’t the same thing, they’re the same event taking place from two radically different perspectives. Isolation is a choice, loneliness a helpless feeling of a lack of connection with other people. Feelings of loneliness can happen in an isolated retreat or a city with millions of people, and isn’t dependent upon physical proximity with others. Isolation is often a very liberating and even deeply spiritual experience, while loneliness is almost universally regarded as a painful experience.
All people are unique, and as such, every person has their own tolerance for isolation, perceived or real, and this tolerance can change at different points in their lives. When a French geologist was 23-years-old in 1962, he decided to spend 2 months in total isolation in a remote cave in the Alps, and was absolutely fine with his experience. He didn’t suffer from mental trauma or an emotional breakdown, and recounts only one day where he sang and danceduntil he got tired enough to go to sleep.
The same man tried the same experiment years later in 1972, and it drove him to the brink of madness. He quickly became depressed and began having extreme mood swings, his temperament cycling vastly ranging from every 18 hours having a new “high” or “low,” to 52 hour cycles. He became disoriented and wasn’t able to make sense of the real world around him at all. The same man had radically different experiences with isolation exactly 10 years apart.
One of the major impacts of isolation and especially loneliness is the distortion of time on our psyche, which is part of the disorientation that comes along with extreme isolation or loneliness. This same French geologist would place intermittent phone calls to his team outside of the cave and during one of the calls, was asked to count to 120 seconds — this task took him 5 minutes. (link 2) Time distortion is known to be the reality of the mind under the influence of powerful psychedelic compounds, but it can also happen organically when the mind is left alone to wander for a sufficient time period, and with a sufficient perception of loneliness, just like the geologist had suffered.
When the team of researchers finally came to get this geologist out of the cave, the man told them they were a whole month and a half early to extract him, though they were right on time. His sense of time had been so radically distorted with no frame of reference, that he couldn’t discern time, even with a moderate amount of light entering the cave with which to tell time and count the days. His bodily systems had been thrown out of balance and were cycling radically and unpredictably, suggesting a deeply hardwired physiological need for others that his isolation didn’t provide. Do we really need other people? This man’s experience suggest that we do much more than we give ourselves credit for.
Organic hallucinations are very real consequences of a lack of input for the human mind. Human beings experience radically different types of hallucinations through different experiences, some audible, some visual, some even relating to our senses of smell, taste, and touch. I’ve written about the various types of non-drug-related hallucinations that humans can experience here.
Antarctica and the Arctic prove perfect locations to test the human ability to withstand isolation and loneliness in extreme conditions. The desolate, white, sterile landscapes which don’t offer much in the way of life to stimulate the eye or ear, the remoteness from all civilization, the painfully dark and long nights — this is the perfect place to see how human beings handle being isolated from the supposed “hell” that is other people. Many studies have been conducted, especially in facilities in the antarctic, where people have gone quite literally mad, even when secluded and locked away with other people.
Many people who lose a spouse or loved one whom they held dear, reporthallucinations, from the loneliness of both shutting themselves out of the world and adapting to a life with significantly less important contact with another human being. This is actually how much we need each other at a time when our society is drifting perceptively away from one another.
It is believed that, much as sensory deprivation can lead to hallucinations as the brain tries to just “make up” experiences which aren’t there to compensate for a lack of stimuli, so does our brains make up “connections” which aren’t there to make up with perceived emotional isolation or loneliness. The fact is, being emotionally isolated from other people seems to cause havoc on the human nervous system, brain, and mind.
The goal of society is, of course, to be social, so as our society expands, why are we suddenly feeling so perceptively lonely? Perceived emotional isolation is a massive predictor of major depressive disorder, so could this be why so many of us are so viciously ravaged by this and other mental illnesses? Many suggest that this is the case.
It seems as if we live in bunkers, more often than not, isolated in massive fortresses, more engaged with technological gadgetry than living human beings, some have suggested, which may be a cause for our loneliness. It’s widely known that engaging in community-based activities significantly effects the outcome of people pertaining to whether or not they develop depression. Tragically, other factors besides community-based activities come into play, as research has shown that young people are feeling increasingly anxious and alone because of their uncertain political situations, economic insecurity, a lack of leadership in their societies, as well as violence which they have endured. I’ve written about the pervasiveness of depression and offered some suggestions on how we can help our friends and loved ones to cope here.
It’s no surprise that a society that requires that individuals work well over 40 hours a week (or not at all) to barely cover their costs of living, all the while living under politically charged climates with uncertain futures would develop mental illnesses, especially ones pertaining to feelings of anxiety and depression, at a staggeringly more frequent rate than their generational predecessors.
So what do we do from here? Why do we still have prisons which lock people up in solitary confinement for extended periods of total isolation against their will, only to free them out into the real world after the complete physiological trauma they’ve endured? How can we create places, situations, and in general, a world where people are much more willing and able to engage with one another? While we don’t have all of the answers, we have enough to say that we somehow need to increase our social cohesiveness in our cultures and communities, rather than attempting to tear them apart.
It’s sad that it’s politically and often economically expedient to do so, tearing at the fabric of the bonds which shape our humanity, but this is the tragic reality that we live in and need to safeguard against. We have the technologies to do this, we now just need to find the collective will. We need each other — point blank, we absolutely need each other in every way, and it would benefit is tremendously in the long run if we came together and made an effort to be a more cohesive whole; the future of our individual happiness may very well depend on it.
© 2019; Joe Duncan. All Rights Reserved