What’s Isolation Doing to Us?


Author’s note:  As an introvert, I appreciate having time alone to recharge as well as days without plans—which puts me on the side of those experts who find positive aspects of  solitude, in contrast to others who contend that isolation, even in the absence of loneliness, is detrimental to health.

“NO MATTER how hygge [Danish, loosely translated as cozy] you’re feeling at this moment… the negative feelings and experiences associated with prolonged isolation will come for us all,” according to Wired: “Isolation can “numb your brain with boredom.”

Loneliness acts as a “biological alarm bell”—like hunger and thirst—that drives us to seek social connection, according to just-published research from MIT on 40 participants who underwent fMRI (functional MRI) scans after each experienced two 10-hour sessions, one of hunger and one of social isolation.

Long-term negative effects on health due to the ongoing “social recession” will parallel those on the economy, according to those experts who blame isolation, even in the absence of loneliness. They point to physical effects, such as inflammation throughout the body, that lead to higher rates of heart disease, stroke and early death.

(For clarity here, “isolation” refers to the objective, physical state of being alone; “loneliness,” to subjective, unpleasant feelings; while both “solitude” and “aloneness” connote positive experiences of being alone.)

Most research on isolation fails to include people who prefer solitude and who see unstructured time as providing opportunities for creativity and personal growth. Experiencing such possibilities may help others adjust to the quarantine.

“Solitude is “more devalued now than it has been in a long time,” says Matthew Bowker, a psychoanalytic political theorist at Medaille College in Buffalo. Bowker argues that “mistrust of solitude” makes it harder for us to define ourselves separately from a group. As a result, fear of missing out (FOMO)  causes widespread anxiety in younger generations and for many older adults as well.

Alone, people suffer from lack of “positive inputs into their small worlds,” contends University of Houston clinical psychologist John Vincent.  With some 43% of people over 60 reporting loneliness—and that was before the quarantine—former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy diagnosed today’s society with “an epidemic of loneliness.”

Social isolation, with or without loneliness, can have as large effect on mortality risk as smoking, obesity, sedentary lifestyle and high blood pressure, according to the late University of Chicago neuroscientist John Cacioppo, nicknamed “Dr. Loneliness” for his extensive research and writing on the subject.

According to the “evolutionary theory of loneliness” that emerged from Cacioppo’s studies, separation from the group causes hyper-vigilance, triggering a fight-or-flight response that becomes embedded in our nervous systems and that in turn produces anxiety and a state of “profound distress.”

In a study of 32,624 healthy men, living alone had worse health consequences than “perceived isolation”—though the researchers’ definition, lack of companionship and support, sounds more like the subjective experience of loneliness.  All participants living alone had a 90% increased risk of cardiovascular death and double the risk of non-fatal stroke—amounting to a 32% increased risk of mortality.

For the MIT study, to create social isolation, each participant spent one session from 9am to 7pm in a room without phones or devices or fiction —“ in case fictional characters provided some social sustenance”—although  they could have puzzles as well as “pre-approved nonfiction reading or writing.”

For their 10-hour hunger session, subjects could not eat or drink anything but water. Following both periods of deprivation, fMRI scans showed the same midbrain regions, which play a role in motivation and craving, responding to images of what subjects had been deprived of; and the magnitude of responses matched the subjects’ reports of how hungry or lonely they’d been.

Noting the “shared neural signature” of the two states—deprivation of food and social connections —MIT neuroscientist Livia Tomova concluded that “social contact is a very basic need.”

In studies on mice, however, the search for food activated different brain regions depending on whether the mice were starving or simply seeking tasty rewards, which the researchers dubbed “hungry” vs. “yummy.”  For the mice, seeking social contact after extreme deprivation affected the same neural pathways as “hungry”—in contrast to the search for the pleasurable rewards of social interaction, which involved the “yummy”-responding regions of the brain.

Positive experiences of solitude, however, depend on certain conditions —the “ifs,” according to University of Maryland developmental psychologist Kenneth Rubin: if it is voluntary; if one can join a social group when desired and maintain positive relationships outside of the group; and if one can regulate one’s emotions effectively—the final “if” being the cause of extreme disagreement.

Understanding an individual’s motivation for seeking solitude may help predict the varying effects of isolation.  The Motivation for Solitude Scale (MSS) begins with “when I spend time alone, I do so because…” and responders answer on a continuum that ranges from not important or relevant, to extremely important and relevant.

About half the questions focus on negative motivations, reasons for avoiding people, that include feeling anxious, unliked, uncomfortable, or “as if I don’t belong;” and “regretting things I say or do.”  The remaining questions illuminate positive possibilities of solitude: sparking creativity, staying in touch with feelings and engaging in activities of personal interest—as well as the introvert motivator, “I feel energized when I spend time by myself.”

Exploring solitude can be unpleasant, even for those who choose it, explains sociologist Jack Fong at California State Polytechnic University, because it can force people to confront who they are. But even isolation that is enforced or sought for negative reasons can create “what Fong calls ‘existentializing moments,’ mental flickers of clarity.”

“Productive solitude,” according to Medaille College’s Bowker, can lead to “the most important relationship anybody ever has, the relationship you have with yourself”—and can occur wherever “the individual can find an interior solitude.” Notes Bowker, “Some people can go for a walk or listen to music and feel that they are deeply in touch with themselves.  Others cannot.”

For anyone new to isolation—under quarantine, in retirement—adjustment can be a process and can benefit from the creation of new routines, for example, around exercise and meals.  Regularly planned social encounters can help, even those online, with new “videoconferencing” options, such as Zoom and BlueJeans.

For anyone who longs to travel, Italian author Tiziano Terzani—after spending a month alone in a Japanese cabin to experience seclusion— found that “the only real teacher is not in a forest, or a hut or an ice cave in the Himalayas. It is within us.”

—Mary Carpenter

Every Tuesday, well-being editor Mary Carpenter delivers health news you can use.

2 thoughts on “What’s Isolation Doing to Us?

  1. Nancy G says:

    As someone who has always worked in an office with at least a dozen other people around me, and having lived in a house where kids were always running in and out, at least until they grew up and left the nest, I have always understood and valued the difference between being alone and being lonely. Right now, I don’t know what I would do with myself if my husband wasn’t here to share the isolating with me. You can only read so many books, or watch so many Netflix series. Then you need the physical presence of another person, preferably one you care about. Great article. Thanks.

  2. Cathy Keatley says:

    This is fascinating, and a very clear explanation of such a complicated and timely topic. Thank you.

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