Lonely Madness: The Effects of Solitary Confinement and Social Isolation on Mental and Emotional Health
By Carly Frintner
Paper #3 for Neurobiology and Behavior, Spring 2005
Professor Paul Grobstein
I began to research the effects of solitary confinement on prisoners' behavior while thinking about the ways in which we isolate ourselves from others, or are isolated by others in our daily lives. I cherish and am very protective of my own chosen moments of solitude, but I also know that long periods of time alone can send me into a depressive state, or make me feel like I'm going crazy. More specifically, a kind of panic sets in when I realize I'm alone with my thoughts with no one to affirm or deny the validity of what I'm thinking. When I'm by myself for too long, I start to question my own understanding of reality—of who I really am and what the world is really like. I need interactions with other people because they are such a significant part of how I understand and enjoy my life and my reason for living. All people seem to depend on varying amounts and intensities of social interaction to keep them happy, stable, and sane. This is not surprising given that human beings are social animals by nature.
Human beings are also naturally curious. Drastically 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" (2) because it denies us the ability to ask questions and seek reasons and information to form explanations that allow us to understand ourselves as well as our world and our place and purpose in the world. It is logical that we feel less stable and secure overall when the things that our brain and body rely on to connect to and understand our surroundings are taken away from us.
In class, we have occasionally discussed how we check in with other people to get an understanding of ourselves. In one extreme example, we recalled a final scene of the movie "A Beautiful Mind" in which Professor John Nash asked a student to verify that there was a man standing there talking to him. Because Nash's schizophrenia often caused him to hallucinate, he relied on other people to assure him what he was seeing was not just his own reality, but the reality of the world (including other people). We all do this to a certain degree, though probably to check much less subtle information than whether a person is or is not actually a hallucination.
Out of the more than 20,000 prisoners in the United States, about 2% are currently living in "super maximum security ("supermax") facilities or units. Prisoners in these facilities typically spend their waking and sleeping hours locked in small, sometimes windowless, cells sealed with solid steel doors. A few times a week they are let out for showers and solitary exercise in a small, enclosed space. Supermax prisoners have almost no access to educational or recreational activities or other sources of mental stimulation and are usually handcuffed, shackled and escorted by two or three correctional officers every time they leave their cells. Assignment to supermax housing is usually for an indefinite period that may continue for years." (2)
I have sometimes gone for hours and even days with very minimal human contact. As a result, I experienced anxiety, depression, and a feeling of being disconnected from the world around me, even though I had complete freedom to go wherever I wanted. Prisoners who are isolated for prolonged periods of time have been known to experience "depression, despair, anxiety, rage, claustrophobia, hallucinations, problems with impulse control, and/or an impaired ability to think, concentrate, or remember." (2) Studies have also shown that isolation can cause "impaired vision and hearing... tinnitus [(ringing in the ears)], weakening of the immune system, amenorrhea [(absence of menstrual periods in women)], premature menopause... and aggressive behavior in prisoners, volunteers and animals." (1)
Previously healthy prisoners have "develop[ed] clinical symptoms usually associated with psychosis or severe affective disorders" (2) including "all types of psychiatric morbidity." (4) Many have committed suicide.
Individuals do vary in how well they can deal with living in isolation, however. (4) For prisoners with pre-existing mental or emotional disorders, living without normal human interaction, physical and mental activity and stimulation can aggravate their symptoms to levels equivalent to torture. (2), (3) In one complaint filed against the Connecticut Department of Correction in August 2003, social isolation and sensory deprivation drove some prisoners to "lash out by swallowing razors, smashing their heads into walls or cutting their flesh." (3)
It is difficult if not impossible to pinpoint the exact reasons why social isolation and sensory deprivation in solitary confinement situations causes mental and emotional breakdown in prisoners. However, in addition to the stimuli and interactions they are denied, we might also consider how people's minds are affected by others controlling every aspect of their lives, from where they are and how long they will be there to how much food they get and when, to light and noise levels, to what possessions they are allowed to have, to when or if their clothes, bedding and rooms are cleaned, to when and if they get to have fresh air.
How does the absolute denial of freedom, the denial of any kind of personal power or influence over one's life, affect the way he thinks, feels and acts? Certainly the impact is different for each person. But are there patterns across cultures and time in how slaves, prisoners, people living under a dictator, and children grounded by their parents react similarly to the denial of freedom? Are the patterns in reactions solely human, or do they extend to other animals, for instance, animals that are caged or otherwise restricted in pet stores, zoos or circuses? Do all animals, including human beings, feel and understand injustice on some level and therefore react to it similarly? Or are humans reduced to more stereotypically animalistic behavior when they are trapped and controlled? "In some states, the conditions are so extreme-e.g., lack of windows, denial of reading material, a maximum of three hours a week out-of-cell time, lack of outdoor recreation-that they can only be explained as reflecting an unwillingness to acknowledge the inmates' basic humanity." (2) Can people retain their humanity without the constant affirmation of their humanity through positive contact with other human beings? How do human beings' behaviors and thought processes shift when the human beings around them refuse to accept their shared humanity?
I am thinking more about the brain's needs based on my research on this particular topic. The physical, mental and emotional effects of living in solitary confinement seem to be beyond the control of the person experiencing them. It seems that the brain needs a certain quantity, quality, or type of stimuli to help regulate, direct and prioritize thought processes and other brain functions properly. It could mean that without certain (or enough) stimuli, the level of random activity in the nervous system increases—such as brain activity that causes hallucinations.
When inputs are all coming from the same place, parts of the unconscious experience the same inputted information differently because they are all interpreting the information with different randomness. The randomness helps us make connections between sets of inputted information and our own prior knowledge to ultimately create a story that explains our situation and surroundings. This story informs the "I"-function, which allows us to experience and understand the situation/surroundings personally. (5)
In an environment with very minimal stimulation, such as a prison cell, the randomness with which the unconscious explores the environment continues, although it is unclear whether randomization increases when fewer stimuli are reaching the brain. Perhaps the brain attempts to compensate for stimuli it is missing by creating stimuli of its own, that is, by increasing random activity. Either way, when the brain is not receiving much input from the environment, there is little information based in reality that the unconscious can focus on or try to interpret. The story reported back to the "I"-function is more likely informed by more random connections than real facts about reality because reality is not offering enough stimuli to make a coherent story. This helps explain why people often experience mental and emotional breakdowns and psychotic episodes when in solitary confinement for extended periods of time