“Ha, that’s fun!” he said to himself as he looked into the camera, jovially laughing as he honked his air horn at the nonexistent mice he thought may be living in his shelter.
Meanwhile, the audience, myself included, were simply marveling at the extent this man’s beard had grown while he spent two months entirely ALONE in the Mongolian wilderness.
If you’re not sure what I’m walking about, I’m referring to The History Channel’s amazing new show, Alone. In a nutshell, the show takes ten survival experts and drops them off in the remote wilderness, entirely alone. They give them a camera to film themselves and a wireless phone to call into the crew and, “tap out.” How do you win? Last the longest.
The effect of the show is remarkable; very quickly you can observe the mood fluctuations among the participants. Careful, calm experts quickly see the onset of sometimes game-ending impulsivity. Suspicion and paranoia often sets in at the later stages, not unlike the collective psychosis shared by the cast of “Lost.”
It’s impossible to watch the show and not wonder, were we meant to be alone?
The effects of loneliness on the human mind are well documented. Loneliness can both contribute to and perpetuate a depressive episode, and loneliness is one of the number one risk factors for suicide. In Borderline Personality Disorder, one of the key features is an inability to be alone. This manifests as a fear of abandonment/intense interpersonal relationships, difficulties defining your own individual identity, and impulsivity.
The effects of loneliness on dementia risk is one of the most astonishing revelations as we reflect on the effect of isolation on the human brain. Studies have shown that elders who endorsed feeling lonely had a 1.64 higher likelihood (that’s 164%!) of developing dementia than their non-lonely peers. Sadly, millions of older seniors in the developed world interact with absolutely nobody up to six days a week. How does loneliness affect the elderly brain? You can read my article on sleep hygiene and brain functioning here – the punchline is that our brain needs to be used to stay healthy. “If you don’t use it, you lose it.” Our brains are designed to be in relative constant conversation and use, and when people become socially isolated for two long, the brain literally starts to degrade.
What may be more surprising is the effect of loneliness on our physical health. Some studies have shown that loneliness has the same effect on cardiac health as smoking fifteen cigarettes a day! Finally, the effects of loneliness on mortality has been estimated at increasing your risk of death by 29%.
The average family size two centuries ago was 20-30. It wouldn’t be uncommon for that many people to share a small residence. While I am not recommending a return to this social structure, the effects of the decreasing family size in western society cannot be ignored. In more recent times, families that often had 10-12 member (it was not uncommon to have 7-8 children per family). Today, the average household in Canada, and much of the west, is four people and change.
As our family sizes decrease, so do our supports. The increasing emphasis in western civilization on individuality and independence has caused many of our traditional social safety nets to degrade. It’s no coincidence that children apprehended by child protection do much better, on average, when there is an extended family member able to take custody of the child.
When I think about life-draining, isolating office jobs, I find myself wondering, “who the fuck doesn’t get depressed?” When I think about borderline personality disorder, and see the impulsivity, and mood fluctuations among the Alone contestants, I find myself wondering if I am simply watching the normal reaction to isolation. When I think about dementia and loneliness, I find myself disgusted, at the collective failure of our society to embrace the people who once stood before us.
I don’t think any of us were meant to be alone.
Editor’s note: Am I saying Borderline Personality doesn’t exist? No. It’s real, and can be serious. As with all psychiatric illnesses, social context matters, and people who have Borderline Personality may not necessarily find they would have had the same struggles in social functioning if our social structure was a little different!
Dr. Travis Barron is a resident physician in Toronto, Canada.