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  Doctor Barbara's Column




Is anyone feeling like bursting forth from our “isolating” and having the biggest longest party that could be conceived of?

Is isolation natural and something we, as an animal, can endure?

Are we more creative in a state of isolation?

Apart from a weekly trip to ‘click and collect’ and the odd word with people from a distance whilst out for a walk I have now isolated with my husband for nine months...and things have been variable, going through periods of anxiety and frustration , to periods of creativity, quiet reading and thinking.
Colette (author) in 1908 wrote, “ there are days when solitude is a heady wine that intoxicates you with freedom, others when it is a bitter tonic ...that makes you beat your head against the wall.

The Scream: Edvard Munch

Psychologists tell us that there are two forms of isolation:

Loneliness is a negative feeling (in which something seems to be missing), a fear and anxiety of being alone (which can be felt when not alone), and solitude is a state where one is happy in one’s own lonely company, a state believed to lead to “inner growth” (away from interfering external “ noise “) (Psychology today.com) Loneliness can result in depression, cognitive and personality changes and a risk of memory deficits, (Peplau and Perlman 1982), solitude to creativity.

When the human brain is socialising its fears, particularly of itself are pushed out of awareness only to rise to the surface when alone. Nietzsche tells us that it is what one takes into solitude that grows there becoming the “beast within”. A poor love of yourself, he hypothesised, turns solitude into a grim prison; agreeing with Goethe who wrote that there is nothing more dangerous than solitude.

In more modern terms we derive meaning about our emotions and ourselves by contact with others and can develop a distorted image of ourselves by being alone. (BBC Future).

Hebb, of the McGill university in the 1950s investigated the effects of isolation and reduced sensory stimulation in paid volunteers.
Within a few days his volunteers became restless and confused , then emotional and anxious and finally started to have visual or auditory hallucinations. A repeat of this experiment by Robbins in association with the BBC in 2008 concluded that this was due to a brain trying to work with reduced sensory input by building its own new reality.

In 1972 Michel Siffre shut himself away alone in a cave in Texas for 205days. He described a loss of ability “to string thoughts together, “ and tried to befriend a mouse for company (the-scientist.com)

In the 1990s, Romanian orphans were found neglected, having had little human contact in their orphanage. These children have continued to have serious behavioural and attachment problems, including impulsivity, inability to regulate emotions, low self-esteem and subsequent low academic achievement: (David Wolfe Child abuse and neglect). It is now known that for the normal development of the brain, particularly the prefrontal cortex (that area above the eyes), social stimulation is paramount. (The lasting impact of neglect: Kirsten Weir June 2014 vol 45 no 6) and that maturation of one’s personality can only occur by interaction with others: (object relations theory). Attachment according to Bowlby (Attachment and loss), is the hub of a person’s life. We are programmed to connect and life has no meaning without relationships.

Experiments in baby macaque monkeys, showed that, separated from their mothers and given only wire frames to feed from, they proved incapable of future love or attachment. Human infants with strong attachment figures grow up into confident, secure, trusting and loving individuals. (Bowlby)

Can solitude be useful and induce?

In normally developed individuals not subjected to the stress of early maternal or social separation, isolation may have some benefits:
Winnacott believed we should develop a capacity to be alone, to break the idea of false notions; self- produced by how we think others want us to behave, to learn, think and innovate but, that capacity comes from the strong relationships developed in childhood.

This capacity to cope with isolation by the directing of thoughts and feelings, needs an act of will in a self -confident individual. Some can cope with isolation better than others (Jerry Bruger 1995). The introvert (drawn to the inner life), finds isolation easier than the extrovert (drawn to socialisation). The autistic or Aspergers’ individual has a reduced ability to cope with people and actively prefers abstract unemotional thinking in their own company.

Dostoevsky felt solitude to be as essential to the mind as food is to the body. Einstein took long walks “to listen” to what was in his head and many great thinkers have shunned families or personal ties, Descartes and Newton among them. Newton actively avoided personal relationships and depended on his work for his self-esteem.

Leonardo da Vinci wrote that an artist must be solitary to consider what he sees and to converse with himself.

Buddha and Jesus both retired into solitude and over the centuries, Hermits have chosen to live a solitary life of contemplation, free from the controls of society and its ways of thinking. (The word monk and monastery derive from the Greek word for being “alone”. (monos).

Caspar David Friedrich: Wanderer above the sea of Fog

Many creative people have had lonely childhoods, often being educated away from schools and institutions. Beatrix Potter developed away from children of her own age. Anthony Trollope suffered early isolation.

Rudyard Kipling was sent to the UK from his birth place in India at five to a family who mistreated him, leading to his withdrawal and his comments that “the mind must make its own happiness,” and PG Wodehouse detached himself into fantasy because of similar unhappiness.

What of Enforced isolation?

The desire for solitude can override the natural pain of isolation, but externally enforced isolation is less bearable.

Isolation in prison was practised by the Quakers in the belief that solitary reflection would lead to self-examination and change (Norval Morris). However solitude proved ineffective in confronting the conscience. Even isolation for only a few weeks lead to increased restlessness, insomnia and concentration and memory problems.

But during the isolation of imprisonment, many great works have been written; Thomas More, a dialogue of “Comfort against Tribulation”, Walter Raleigh penned the history of the world, John Bunyan (although allowed visitors) wrote The Pilgrims Progress.

Voyage to Labrador: Alfred Wallis

Society and solitude

The ability to tolerate solitude is in itself dependent on society’s norms and its general approval or disapproval of the state.

Many societies have a fear of lonely people who can carry a social stigma. Yet in the USA in 2006, 1 in 4 households had only one person living in them (as opposed to 1 in 10 in the 1930s) and half a million people over 60 may spend every day alone.

Lost: Barbara Milne

Research in 2003 by Kaya and Weber revealed that American students were more tolerant of isolation (in fact preferred privacy), when compared to students from Turkey.

Rich Western industrialised societies have 8 times the incidence of depression than poorer countries where there remains a sense of community and extended family. Within a tribal community survival depends on the community working and being together and of respecting each other’s talents (including the experience of the elderly). Benjamin Franklin commented on the number of white Americans who left their Western society to live with the tribal communities of the Native Americans (a movement of people not reflected in the reverse direction).

Disasters in the Western world such as the wars can produce a sense of community, and of “pulling together”. War veterans (Junger, Sebastian TED talks) ,“miss” the war because they lose the cohesion of their comrades. Who on retirement has felt lost and lonely without their tribe of like workers?

Automat by Edward Hopper

Does socialising and the presence of others alter our brain?

Recent research has revealed specific areas of the brain which appear to be involved in the pain of isolation or exclusion and areas that respond to socialisation.

Individuals living in polar research or space stations have shown prefrontal dysfunction (affecting decision making and social behaviour), reduced hippocampal activity, resulting in impaired learning and memory, and reduced amygdala size.

The amygdala (the site of the brain involved in processing fears and emotions, experiencing anxiety and recognising facial expressions), is larger if you have more friends (perhaps as a result of paying attention to body language). (Adolphs and Spezio Role of amygdala in visual social stimuli... progress in brain research). Many of the Romanian orphans had little fear of strangers, perhaps due to an inability to read body language?

Diagram indicating the positions of prefrontal cortex with
hippocampus and amygdala deep in the centre of the brain

Matthew Lieberman in his book Social (Neuroscience of our Social Lives), explains how we are wired to be social, connected , curious of others and dependent on our social group. “

The research of Paul McLean has shown that brain areas and certain neural pathways associated with physical pain (such as breaking a leg) are also stimulated by the pain of social separation.

In 1978, Panksepp described social attachments piggy backing the physical pain system through the release of pain easing opioids. The dorsal anterior cingulate gyrus in the brain provokes the emotional response to pain and its removal takes away the distress, even if the pain is still felt. The dACC may be the route to an alarm system to pain which can be temporarily muted by the activity of the prefrontal cortex (the thinking brain). Investigations have indicated that simple pain killers by suppressing dACC activity, can reduce not only physical pain but also the pain of social rejection .

Diagram indicating the position of the dorsal anterior
 cingulate gyrus deep in the centre of the brain

It has also been shown that areas of the brain stimulated by pleasure such as eating chocolate, are also stimulated by being treated fairly, and by social rewards.

That social thinking and “none social” reasoning interfere with each other in the brain...either one or the other (as many a philosophical creator has claimed), appears to be true. In 1997 Gordon Shulman showed that brain regions are active when the brain is not focused on a specific task. Known as the default network, these regions are involved in the understanding of others and are “shut down,“ by focused activity (such as reading the newspaper).

Our brains are not built to be independent but to absorb and act upon the beliefs of those around us. Regions of the brain which are active, when we think of our personal beliefs, overlap and are influenced by areas that respond to the beliefs of others. These areas, active when we are not focused, involve those responsible for social cognition and the thinking about other people’s minds, feelings and goals.

Dunbar in the 1990s, attributed the size of the human neocortex to our ability to live in large (ideally circa 150 individuals), social groups.

When we are complying with social norms, there are areas of the lateral prefrontal cortex that inhibit areas that respond to our selfish desires. The ventral striatum of the brain is involved in our response to rewards. Cooperating with others activates this area, in preference to selfish rewards. Most of us actively prefer to be socially involved than to have a reward such as money for not being involved, lending truth to the words of the Dalai Lama, who said: “if you wish to be selfish do it an intelligent way, work for the welfare of others and so you will gain pleasure for yourself.”

The medial prefrontal cortex (PFC) is activated during self-reflection, being the area involved in “what you think of yourself,” but It is closely connected and influenced by approximate regions, the dorsomedial PFC, which is said to mentalize and work out what others think of you, the ventromedial region, which integrates emotion , social knowledge, self-related information and memory, and the ventrolateral PFC area which reappraises emotional input leading to reduced amygdala (fear and anxiety), activity ( important in complying (in Western terms) or harmonising (in Eastern terms), with those around us). By mentalizing and thinking out or even talking or writing about problems, the amygdala activity is suppressed and we “comply” or “harmonise” with social norms.


Diagram dordomedial and ventromedial PFC at the front of

the brain  and the ventral striatum and dACC deep in the brain.


Research in social brain activity has also found the activation of neurones known as mirror neurones in which watching others perform tasks, activates the same areas in one’s own brain as if you were doing it yourself... resulting in a form of “mind reading” and empathy.

Biochemistry of loneliness

Motel at the University of Utah has discovered an increase in a signalling neuropeptide known as Tac 2 in mice in isolation, perhaps interacting with stress hormones. Inflammatory signals, cytokines, are known to be increased in lonely humans leading to poor physical health (the-scientist .com - How isolation affects the brain Jul 13 2020).

On the basis of research into chemical changes, pharmacological treatments are being investigated for loneliness and its consequences. These include chemicals that alter the stress response or block Tac2. But it is a sad state of affairs when communities neglect so many, that loneliness becomes a problem needing pharmacology.

In conclusion

Our brains are dependent on and built around their interactions with others from the day we are born, and only by the application of higher centres and self-control (or perhaps the poorer development of these areas in childhood), can we choose to accept solitude. Solitude is not natural. Loneliness is a negative emotional and painful state which society should never permit. We are a social species in which each individual has value .Perhaps in much of the Western world our communities have become too large, fractured and busy to help stop people from becoming islands. In terms of the pandemic, we will all be relieved when we can meet with family and friends because we are just built that way.

John Donne : “no man is an island entire of itself, every man is a piece of the continent...a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less.”


Pieter Bruegel the elder: The Wedding Dance






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