Isolation and the Brain

After writing last week about the finding that a sense of a lack of power can lead to an increase in being misled by illusions, I happened to read this article on solitary confinement and its effect on the brain. This well-written and raw article, entitled “Twilight in the Box,” is written by Shruti Ravindran on Aeon magazine.

The article describes the terrible effect that solitary confinement can have on prisoners, and as I read it, it correlated very well with what we touched on in our last post.

When Kupers evaluated the residents in Unit 32 in 2002, which reeked of malfunctioning toilets, he found that about 100 of them had severe undiagnosed or misdiagnosed mental illnesses. They hallucinated, threw faeces at the guards, and howled through the night; in response, they received punishment, not treatment. After listening to the accounts of inmates who described the facility as a hellhole and insane asylum, the prison authorities gradually reduced the segregated population from 1,000 to 150, upon which violence plummeted by 70 per cent.

We know that we are more susceptible to illusions when we are disempowered. Imagine, then, that susceptibility compounded by being alone. That is the horror of solitary confinement.

As years passed, an irrefutable body of work in a range of species established that social interactions across complex terrain could nourish and boost the brain, while impoverished surroundings diminished it in every stage of life.

Indeed. Even fish, as we’ve explored here before, benefit from enriched environments. Though on the other extreme, we must also take some caution in just how much we “enrich” our environments—a recent study demonstrates that having too much visual stimulus can be distracting for young children and reduce learning gains!

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