In today’s society, we are constant communicators. Some believe the technology is causing us to become more and more isolated, however, studies show we are much more social through the use of our rapidly-advancing technology. Even when we are introverts, we are never truly alone.
What if we we experience social isolation, though? What if you were sent into a room with absolutely no contact with the outside world – no internet connection, no cell phone, not even a pigeon to deliver handwritten letters? How long could you last before going crazy?
Is there an average amount of time for everyone, or do we all truly have different social needs to be met? Furthermore, what effect would being isolated have on us?
True social isolation is Destructive
A recent study of super maximum security, or ‘supermax’ prisons, states removing people from the general population and reducing the amount of “normal social interaction, of reasonable mental stimulus, of exposure to the natural world, of almost everything that makes life human and bearable, is emotionally, physically, and psychologically destructive” because it doesn’t allow us to ask questions about the world around us, or even explore our surroundings. While this study was performed in prisons, it’s a great example of true isolation.
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The lack of interaction with others, which is considered a basic survival need for the human species, can result in negative effects rather quickly – especially for our mental health. These effects can also lead to the risk of harmful mental conditions or illnesses.
These include higher risk for dementia, a reduced life expectancy, an increased risk of heart disease, and can even cause you to be more susceptible to various sleep disorders. Being isolated from the outside world can also cause a person’s brain to be affected in a way similar to how they would feel physical pain.
How Long Before These Effects are Felt?
In a New York Times article written by Sarah Shroud, a prisoner in Iran who was arrested under the assumption she was a spy, tells her story of how her confinement affected her mental health. In the article, Sarah recalls the moment she began ‘losing it.’
At first she kept telling herself not to worry, and that no one was going to keep her in a cell by herself for too long. After two months of social isolation, however, her reassurance began to mean nothing. “Some days, I heard phantom footsteps coming down the hall. I spent large portions of my days crouched down on all fours by a small slit in the door, listening.
In the periphery of my vision, I began to see flashing lights, only to jerk my head around to find that nothing was there. More than once, I beat at the walls until my knuckles bled and cried myself into a state of exhaustion.”
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In another study, epidemiologist Andrew Steptoe of University College London discusses the difference between people and their social needs.
“There are plenty of people who are socially isolated, but who are perfectly happy with that,” Steptoe states. “But even then we should be trying to make sure there’s enough contacts with them so that if something does go wrong … they’re going to be advised and supported.”
He goes on to say that even those of us who can withstand long amounts of social isolation, they still need to interact with others from time to time, so they can be encouraged by their peers and maintain healthy levels of communication.
Everyone is different. Personally, I am a very social person – the epitome of extroverts. I need constant interaction with others to fulfill my social needs.
Others may tend to be more introverted, meaning they can go for longer periods of time without any interaction and be completely content. How long do you think you could be completely isolated before you began to feel these effects?