What Isolation Does to Your Brain (and How You Can Fight It)

Courtney Wirth/Thrillist
Courtney Wirth/Thrillist

Having a dead phone seems like a downward spiral of loneliness (where did all the likes go?). But what happens when you’re really cut off from the world -- when you’re totally alone? We asked Dr. Tina Maschi, licensed mental health professional and associate professor at Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service, to tell us what goes down in the human brain under prolonged periods of social isolation. As to how to fight those terrible effects (seriously, they're like physically sick-bad), who better to hit up than Alan Kay, the winner of HISTORY'S original series Alone. He made it through 56 days in the wilderness of Canada with nothing but his camera, some survival gear, and his thoughts.

Courtney Wirth/Thrillist

Being alone goes fundamentally against how we're wired

Before we can get to the bad stuff and the possible defense mechanisms, you need to understand why being alone can be so damaging. Humans are social beings -- we’re herd driven. There is a hunch that the very size of the neocortex, the part of our brain that controls things like language and empathy and general social cognition, is directly proportional to how social a species is. Our brains are basically built to socialize. When your brain isn't doing what it was fundamentally built to do, you put the mind under tremendous unnatural stress, and bad things can happen. 

"When I heard ducks, they sounded like old men arguing with each other." - Alan Kay

Being alone might cause you to hallucinate

Hallucinations can be triggered by a traumatic event. If you take a healthy person with no history of mental health disorders and put them under great stress, their cortisol levels (the stress hormone) would be astronomical, affecting their ability to psychologically interpret stimuli. Basically, you’re not reading what’s actually happening correctly and are just reacting to your trauma with forms, visions, or sounds that are a projection of yourself.

Kay didn’t experience any of these hallucinations triggered by intense fear or stress. Because of his previous experiences in his high-stress job as a correctional officer as well as his youth spent honing his survival skills in the woods of Georgia, Kay might have been predisposed to succeeding on his mission to be the last man standing on Vancouver Island.  

He did, however, say that the longer he stayed in the wilderness, the easier it was to be so in tune with the nature around him that he could actually hear it.

“It was kind of a rhythm. You could feel the pulse of everything going on in the world. Sometimes it was an audible thing and I think maybe it’s something that’s real, that we just live in such a noisy world that we’re just not cognizant of that. It takes that isolation and that time in solitude and quiet to reconnect with it.”  

Being alone might cause you to anthropomorphize objects

Yes, just like in Castaway, you might start talking to a volleyball. Ascribing human characteristics to inanimate objects is a real phenomenon seen in completely isolated people.

“If you’re used to a world full of objects and you no longer see them, you begin looking for some sense of comfort,” says Dr. Maschi. “Just based on these primal emotions of anxiety and fear of death, you could create things; you could see something that’s not there.”

While Kay wasn’t having long conversations with his cooking pot, he described how he began to equate human emotion to the sounds the birds made on Vancouver Island.

“When I heard seagulls, they sounded to me like my children when they were discontent. When I heard ducks, they sounded like old men arguing with each other. You start to see these human characteristics superimposed on the vocalizations of these animals.”

Courtney Wirth/Thrillist

Being alone could make you physically sick

Fire up your social media accounts (or maybe just go outside) -- numerous studies have found that social isolation can actually lead you to an early grave. Lack of physical contact can result in higher stress levels and higher blood pressure, so find someone’s hand and hold it goddammit. A decade-long study about the correlation between loneliness and physical illness found that the production of white blood cells in people who self-reported higher levels of loneliness was affected due to the stress that comes with being alone. So? SO, it means that the more alone you are, the more susceptible you are to becoming ill. Start self-prescribing yourself long talks with your neighbor along with that daily multivitamin.

Being alone might cause you to utilize defense mechanisms like compartmentalization to survive

Instead of fixating on the giant, looming problem ahead, Kay chose to divide and conquer. “How do you eat a cow?” asks Kay (remember?). “One bite at a time.”

Whether he knew it or not, that defense mechanisms is compartmentalization, when one stores away emotions like anxieties and fears to focus energy on all the things that need to be done to ensure survival. Another, intellectualization, is demonstrated when rational thinking is used during times of stress to remove oneself emotionally from situation.

“Living in the moment was really important,” says Kay. “Instead of looking at all of the challenges and all of the things that could potentially go wrong, I would just focus on my most pressing need. That moment I was building a fire, I was 110% focused on building that fire.”

Being alone does not always have to be a negative experience

So in the end, what was it about Alan Kay that got him through this without a (mental) scratch?

“There’s a psychological co-dependency that people often have. They cannot be alone; they have to be in a relationship, they have to be with friends. says Dr. Maschi. But if a person has good internal resources, problem solving skills, and [the ability to] not let emotions get the best of them, he might be stronger and might be able to withstand [being alone].”

Solitude doesn’t always have to mean loneliness. Intrepid backpackers sojourn into the wilderness seeking enlightenment all the time. Monks take vows of silences. A teenage girl sailed around the world alone in a little boat for months at a time. Kay's experience, background, and preparation gave him distinct advantages.

“Obviously you miss family and friends, human interaction,” says Kay. "But for me, I rather enjoyed some of the solitude. It really gave you time to really look within yourself. And the longer that you’re out there, the more that process just goes deeper and deeper. Even the way the animals respond to you changes. They start to accept you as just another creature out there trying to survive.”

Check out season two of Alone on HISTORY on April 21st.