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.