Sociality and solitary confinement

I had a lot of work for Ph.D. applications and I disappeared from the world. The applications are not done and in fact I probably have to write a new paper in 10 days, but class work is over and I feel optimistic, so I took the time to write this.

I read this excellent article in the New Yorker on solitary confinement, and I thought it fit with many of my typical concerns on this blog.

The point of the article is pretty simple. A variety of psychological experiments on humans and monkeys as well as an avalanche of anecdotal evidence shows that solitary confinement is really bad for people. Depression and eventually complete psychosis are the results.

The leading hypothesis for what causes these results is that humans need to socialize with other people in order to remain psychologically healthy.

I’ve often talked on this blog about how people are pretty good at reading other humans and that most people, famous serial killers excluded, can read facial expressions and other social cues. Most people can tell when someone doesn’t want to talk to them, and further, I think most people have a pretty good idea when people are lying to them. I can’t prove any of this, but there is a skill at comprehending other humans on an extremely intuitive level, and some CIA interrogators hone this skill to its highest level (I have had personal contact with some interrogation experts (not the abusive type) who are just extremely skilled at drawing information out of people and seeing if they are responding truthfully and whatnot).

Cliches are just the verbal expression of this ability. We can be “on the same wavelength” as someone, and when we’re not, we can sometimes bridge the gap with cliches which are like little packets of synchronized thinking. They get a bad rap because they are trivial and often tinged with various prejudices or inaccuracies, but they are also a snippet of complete thinking-togetherness. No wonder there are images of two business executives struggling to close a deal or two diplomats trying to resolve a conflict and the thing that moves the situation along is the connection over a phrase or an idea. My dad is a a lawyer and I’ve heard him on the phone talking with clients and one of his greatest skills is the ability to make his clients understand complicated strategic and economic considerations with his awe-shucks midwestern approach to communication.

Anyway, back to the point, which it that humans learn to hone in on what other people are thinking and feeling (I feel your pain) and this is a skill that apparently, can decay in solitary confinement. Prisoners talk about how gestures that their lawyers made no longer made sense or some people having a nervous breakdown because communication became too hard.

This is heavy philosophical stuff, because philosophy tries to draw out assumptions that are always present, but can only be seen in certain circumstances. Freud is one example of this methodology: a freudian slip is a small, almost unnoticeable yet distinctively anomalous window into someone’s psyche. Philosophy applies this lesson to all things, and in this case, the point is that socialization is a hidden foundation for acting and thinking.

This is the point that Hannah Arendt makes in her writing about democracy. I love her writing and one of its themes is that we don’t know what to think without being in a dialogue with others. This too has been confirmed with studies. Many people do not have specific view on various political questions UNTIL they have been exposed to a situation where they had to defend or talk about the issue in a situation with others. Deliberation with others is not just how we tell each other what we’re thinking, but HOW we come to decide questions at all. We are quite literally THINKING IN CONCERT, when we deliberate with others. This is probably why I have to talk to myself when I’m thinking about something, to simulate the back and forth and perhaps to activate the part of the brain that talks. Also think of phrases like “lets talk through it.” These phrases have significance on the theory I’m trying to briefly elaborate.

This is welcome news for me, because I love to talk and have long thought that their something unique about talking with other people, something transcendental or fully human about it.

A last point though, I think this article really overstates things. The assumption is that people in solitary confinement need other people, but people in solitary confinement are missing a lot of things that might be important to mental health, like the ability to MOVE around.

Think of any survival story involving prolonged periods without other people. People don’t go insane as a result of lack of human contact (well, I guess some do) and the reason might be because they are exercising a different but closely related cognitive muscle, which is that of planning and acting. Catching food, making things, creating a livelihood and a home.

This would connect closer to a more Marxist analysis (someone Arendt criticizes) that treats humans as essentially making or building animals. Arendt calls this conception of human life that of HOMO FABER (from the root for fabrication, or “to build”).

All I’m trying to say here is that solitary confinement tells us something special about what makes us human, but its not very clear what it is, since being put in a small cell with no other people is bound to interfere with a bunch of aspects of human nature that various philosophers have treated as central.


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