March 23, 2009
There's Solitary and Then There's Solitary
The other day, a group of my friends, including two other PhDs, discussed the high rate of depression among graduate students. “It’s the stress,” one said; “the money!” laughed another. But I made a case that it was actually the isolation, the loneliness, that had the biggest effect. After all, you take a group of young adults who are perversely wired for the continual approval that good students get from being in the classroom with each other, and then lock them away for a year or two to write a dissertation with only intermittent contact from an advisor. That’s a recipe for disaster.
So I read Atul Gawande’s account of the human brain’s response to solitary confinement with an odd shock of recognition:
Among our most benign experiments are those with people who voluntarily isolate themselves for extended periods. Long-distance solo sailors, for instance, commit themselves to months at sea. They face all manner of physical terrors: thrashing storms, fifty-foot waves, leaks, illness. Yet, for many, the single most overwhelming difficulty they report is the ‘soul-destroying loneliness,’ as one sailor called it. Astronauts have to be screened for their ability to tolerate long stretches in tightly confined isolation, and they come to depend on radio and video communications for social contact…
[After years of solitary, Hezbollah hostage Terry Anderson] was despondent and depressed. Then, with time, he began to feel something more. He felt himself disintegrating. It was as if his brain were grinding down. A month into his confinement, he recalled in his memoir, “The mind is a blank. Jesus, I always thought I was smart. Where are all the things I learned, the books I read, the poems I memorized? There’s nothing there, just a formless, gray-black misery. My mind’s gone dead. God, help me.”
He was stiff from lying in bed day and night, yet tired all the time. He dozed off and on constantly, sleeping twelve hours a day. He craved activity of almost any kind. He would watch the daylight wax and wane on the ceiling, or roaches creep slowly up the wall. He had a Bible and tried to read, but he often found that he lacked the concentration to do so. He observed himself becoming neurotically possessive about his little space, at times putting his life in jeopardy by flying into a rage if a guard happened to step on his bed. He brooded incessantly, thinking back on all the mistakes he’d made in life, his regrets, his offenses against God and family.
But here’s the weird part — all of this isolation actually serves to select for a particular personality type. This is especially perverse when solitary confinement is used in prisons — prisoners who realign their social expectations for solitary confinement effectively become asocial at best, antisocial generally, and deeply psychotic at worst.
Everyone’s identity is socially created: it’s through your relationships that you understand yourself as a mother or a father, a teacher or an accountant, a hero or a villain. But, after years of isolation, many prisoners change in another way that Haney observed. They begin to see themselves primarily as combatants in the world, people whose identity is rooted in thwarting prison control.
As a matter of self-preservation, this may not be a bad thing. According to the Navy P.O.W. researchers, the instinct to fight back against the enemy constituted the most important coping mechanism for the prisoners they studied. Resistance was often their sole means of maintaining a sense of purpose, and so their sanity. Yet resistance is precisely what we wish to destroy in our supermax prisoners. As Haney observed in a review of research findings, prisoners in solitary confinement must be able to withstand the experience in order to be allowed to return to the highly social world of mainline prison or free society. Perversely, then, the prisoners who can’t handle profound isolation are the ones who are forced to remain in it. “And those who have adapted,” Haney writes, “are prime candidates for release to a social world to which they may be incapable of ever fully readjusting.”
I think we just figured out why so many professors are so deeply, deeply weird.