Human beings are social creatures. We love to surround ourselves with other people and share our personal stories and experiences. We crave connection and interaction. Today we only have to turn on our laptops or smartphones to instantly spark up a conversation. So being on your own for long periods of time, isolated from family, friends and loved ones, can sound a little scary. But what can isolation really do to a person? What effect does disconnecting from the world and society have? And if the time alone is indefinite, how long would it take to drive a person insane?
Let’s begin by looking at the case of Michel Siffre, a French underground explorer, adventurer and scientist. On Valentine’s Day in 1972, Siffre kissed his wife goodbye and descended a hundred feet into the Midnight Cave in Texas. He did not emerge for six months. He didn’t go crazy, but things did get pretty strange. Siffre lived in a nylon tent surrounded by scientific equipment. He took a few creature comforts including a freezer, furniture, books, and a music player. NASA supplied all of his food, so they could monitor the experiment as part of their research for long haul space missions.
So how did Siffre fair? Well the lack of sensory and social stimulation led to a gradual deterioration in his mental wellbeing and at one point he even thought about suicide. By day seventy-seven, his memory was so bad, that he forgot things unless he wrote them down immediately. Siffre survived the ordeal, he did not lose his mind, but even three years after leaving the cave, he continued to have issues with his memory and eyesight.
Years later in 2008, the BBC conducted a similar experiment but with a shorter time frame and more extreme conditions. They wanted to try and answer a simple question: Can any human endure total sensory deprivation without losing their sanity? A group of six volunteers were put into a total isolation chamber, hidden in a former nuclear bunker. No light, no sound, no sensory interaction for 48 hours. One of the volunteers was comedian, Adam Bloom. Bloom explained his experience as the hours went by. He started out by talking, singing and making jokes out loud until he was bored. Next he stared off into space for sometime and his mind filled with thoughts of his life outside. This led him to worry about his fiancée and family. He fell asleep after a few hours but when he woke up, he had totally lost track of time. In pitch black and with nothing to reference for the time of day, he found it impossible to regain his body clock. After 18 hours, things took a turn for the worse and comedian Bloom started experiencing paranoia. He was singing and then crying, his emotions running out of control. At the halfway mark, 24 hours, Bloom’s brainpower was really flagging. He felt it was impossible to stimulate his mind. At 30 hours, he started pacing his room endlessly, to keep himself occupied. Finally, after 40 hours, with only 8 hours to go, Bloom began to hallucinate, seeing a pile of 500 oyster shells. He described seeing the pearly sheen on the shells as clear as day, and he felt like the room was taking off from beneath him. He realized that the lack of stimulation was driving him close to insanity. Bloom survived the final 8 hours and lived to tell the tale. But we can see from this experiment, that taking away all of a person’s sensory input and locking them away on their own for even a short period of time, can begin to drive them crazy.
When you think of isolation, something that also springs to mind is life inside a prison. So we decided to take a look at some of the cases that involved prisoners being kept in solitary confinement. Kenny “Zulu” Whitmore spent 36 consecutive years in solitary confinement in Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. During his time there, Whitmore was deprived of virtually all human contact, and spent 23 hours a day living in a 6-foot by 9-foot cell. After he was eventually released back into the general prison population, Whitmore was suffering from what he described as a constellation of muscle atrophy, cardiovascular hypertension and deteriorating vision caused by a lack of light and visual stimulation in his stifling cell. 36 years in solitary, now that’s a long time but it’s actually NOT the record! With a little more digging, we discovered the story of Albert Woodfox. Woodfox was released from jail after a staggering 43 years in isolation. Like Whitmore, Woodfox spent 23 hours of his day living alone in his small cell. In 2014, he relayed his experiences to a blogger. Woodfox described what it was like to be locked in the cell for so many years. He said he feared he might start screaming and not be able to stop. He also felt he might turn into a baby, curl up in a fetal position and lay there day after day for the rest of his life. Or that he might cut off his balls, throw them through the bars the way he had seen others do when they couldn’t take any more. Albert Woodfox’s comments certainly sound like those of a man who was flirting with insanity, but he survived. His attorney said Woodfox made it through the ordeal because of his extraordinary strength and character.
So we’ve looked at isolation experiments and the effects on the mind, and we’ve seen how years in a jail cell can push a person to the edge. What other extreme examples of isolation are there?
Well not everyone is forced into isolation. In fact, in some spiritual traditions, practitioners chose to retreat to the forest or in to caves for years at a time. One such person is Tenzin Palmo who at the age of 21 swapped her job as a London librarian for life as a nun in a monastery in India. But even that was not isolated enough for Palmo and after a few years there, she moved from the monastery and started living in a cave in the Himalayas. The cave measured 10 feet wide and six feet deep and Palmo stayed there for 12 years. Three of those years she spent meditating, never laying down, sleeping seated, in a traditional wooden meditation box for only three hours a night. The idea of spending more than a decade in a cave is certainly a crazy one, but this nun reemerged years later to teach others in the monastery. Did she hold on to her sanity? Was she enlightened? We may never know.
So today we’ve seen there are many examples of people being in isolation for long periods. How long it takes to drive you crazy depends on the individual and the conditions of their isolation. But even in the extreme cases we looked at, when people do lose their grip on reality, they also tend to recover.
So, how do you think you’d react to being in isolation? Let us know in the comments.