Monday, April 6, 2009

Alone

One of the realities of being a full-time writer is that you spend a lot of time alone (unless you count all those fictional people who don't actually exist, crowding one's study and clamoring for attention). I usually don't mind this, but, then, I arrange to get out nearly every day for lunch or dinner or movie or something with friends. The March 30 issue of The New Yorker contains a long article about people who cannot do that.

The article, by Atul Gawande, does not cover the well-known effects of isolating children. Instead, it focuses on adults who have had decades of human contact already and are then isolated: prisoners of war such as John McCain and Terry Anderson, and penal inmates in solitary confinement in "supermax" prisons. At the moment, America has 25,000 such inmates.

McCain is quoted as saying that solitary confinement was the worst part of his ordeal -- worse than the physical torture. Scientists have studied the brains of people kept apart from all human contact. After an amazingly short period, which ranges from a week to a month depending on the strength of personality, brain waves begin to change. After a few months, most prisoners either begin to have panic attacks or lapse into lethargy. The most fragile get to the point where they drift in and out of acute psychosis. After enough time, even the strongest-minded have trouble: Terry Anderson reports banging his head against a wall until he bled.

These effects continue after contact with other people is restored. Most people have trouble having appropriate interactions for a long time, and some never regain the ability to act normally. Anderson says that during all his post-release interviews, he felt as if he "were drugged." Science reports that after prolonged solitary confinement, it can take months for brain waves to return to normal.

Even more sobering, all these effects happen even when the prisoner is allowed books, radio, and television. Apparently nothing can substitute for the touch, sound, and sight of another of our own species.

9 comments:

Mary Robinette Kowal said...

Wow. That makes me want to schedule lunch with people every day.

Tim of Angle said...

So what's your point?

Nancy Kress said...

I made my point. (Insert here chorus of Barbra Streisand singing "People Who Need People").

Jack said...

I wonder what the brain wave effect would be on an isolated person with access to the internet and its interactive connections with people on the outside. Somehow I have the feeling this experiment is being conducted by the millions on a daily basis.

bluesman miike Lindner said...

Nancy, I haven't read that article, but I wonder if the author discussed =why= some souls are in solitary.

Maybe because they're stone-cold murderous psychopaths?

deangc said...

Miike Lindner: what possible difference would that make to Nancy's point?

bluesman miike Lindner said...

None.

But I like to understand all aspects of a situation. Don't you?

What I =don't= like is tears for human monsters. Do you?

Mark said...

As Jack said, would there be a different result if there was the real time telepresence of another person?

I myself am a natural Introvert that has to deal with people daily as part of my work, so I dream about sitting in the middle of an ocean with the sails down and no humans around for hundreds of miles. Ah, solitude, peace....

Kosmonavtka said...

An English lady, Tenzin Palmo, spent 12 years on retreat in a cave in the Himalayas, and she seemed to cope OK - though I guess her solitude was by choice!