Two months ago, Kathy and I watched the reality television series Alone. The show chronicles a competition among ten wilderness experts who are isolated from each other and all other humans as they attempt to survive in the Canadian Arctic for 100 days. Contestants begin with no food and only 10 basic survival items like a sleeping bag, tarp, axe, saw, flint, nylon line for making snares or a gill net, a bow, and a limited number of arrows. The 100 days extended from late September until the end of December when the contestants would be facing blizzards and temperatures below -40°.
The contestants faced the daunting challenge of securing enough food to stay alive, fending off large predators intent on stealing their food, and quickly building a shelter able to withstand high winds and bitter cold. However, as we watched the eleven episodes, it became apparent that the psychological difficulties were more challenging than the physical demands. Being isolated from direct contact with other humans took its toll. Several contestants “tapped out” early because they could no longer tolerate the isolation. Only one contestant survived the 100 days, a professional Alaskan wilderness guide and hunter who suffered some psychological trauma as a result.
Effects of Isolation
Genesis 2 declares that God created the first man, Adam, before he created the first woman, Eve. Before Eve, Adam enjoyed a paradisiacal garden and animals intent on serving and pleasing him. However, it was not long before God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone,” and proceeded to create Eve.
Now, a team of ten neuroscientists and biologists led by Julia George has published a study demonstrating that acute social isolation alters the neurogenic state of the brain.1 Their study was not the first to demonstrate that social isolation brings on deleterious effects on the health, brain function, epigenetics, and behavior of humans and social animals. However, other studies have tracked prolonged social isolation. In those cases, an individual human or social animal was isolated from other individuals for time periods of several weeks or more.
George’s team sought to determine if even brief isolation periods of 24 hours or less could alter gene expression and DNA methylation in the higher cognitive centers of the brain. For ethical reasons they decided not to do controlled experiments of humans. They cited the studies on prolonged social isolation to argue that certain highly social animals make excellent proxies for human responses to social isolation.2 Thus, they chose to do their experiments on the zebra finch, a highly social songbird.
George’s team took 24 adult female zebra finches that had been together in an aviary. Twelve were removed and placed alone in a sound isolation chamber overnight, then sacrificed so researchers could analyze their forebrain neurogenomic state. The other twelve were removed, immediately sacrificed, and had their forebrain neurogenomic state similarly analyzed.
The team’s analysis showed that even a single overnight isolation brought immediate negative consequences in brain gene activity. Forty genes “showed evidence of differential methylation.”3 They observed the alteration of “hundreds of genes in higher forebrain centers involved in social communication, suppressing expression of gene sets involved in neurotrophic signaling and axon guidance in particular.”4 The gene most negatively impacted was EGR1, the gene extensively used to indicate neural activity associated with learning, memory, and perception of salience (that which stands out from its neighbors). They concluded that the alteration is likely to be general, not limited to zebra finches or rearing environments. Their study shows the potential for lasting structural and functional changes in human brains as the result
s of short periods of acute social isolation.
Humans and Other Creatures Appear to Be Designed for Community
Questions remaining to be answered include: (1) Are the deleterious consequences permanent? (2) If not permanent, how long do the effects of short-term acute social isolation persist after the individual is returned to a normal social environment? and (3) Do additional deleterious effects on other genes eventually emerge?
In a follow-up experiment the team observed that all the negative consequences they noted in their study disappeared when two zebra finches spent a night together in the sound isolation chamber. Evidently, it was the lack of social engagement, not the change of environment, that brought on the deleterious effects.
The team’s research affirms that indeed “it is not good for the man to be alone.” Social engagement is necessary to maintain optimal physical and mental health. What’s true of songbirds is also true of humans. We need to talk to one another, whether through spoken words, written language, internet channels, or a combination of all three. We also need to be physically present. This principle is taken up in Hebrews 10:25 where Christians are exhorted to not forsake meeting regularly with one another.
Personally, the team’s study has affirmed one of my ministry disciplines. My travels and research often involve periods of isolation. I have made it a point, however, to take time every day to communicate with at least one other human being. I hope you’ll do the same. Rather than merely surviving in isolation, humans seem created to thrive in community.