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What does social isolation do to the brain?


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Awesome topic Mellow -- and right at the core of one of the ideas in my alledged book...

Social isolation can definitely drive one mad. There are too many effects to list -- if you wanted to be purely biochemical you might note that it lowers serotonin, inhibits sexual drive, plays with appetite and sleep cycles. But more generally I see it as a case of use-it-or-lose-it. Beyond using or losing social skills, I believe that the mind is essentially a piece of a network, or actually that the self is a piece of a network of mind. When we are more plugged into the network, our mind works better simply because more of it is there. When we are unplugged (isolated) our mind struggles to do more than it is designed to (sorry, evolved to do :) and like any overloaded system becomes worn down, unbalanced, and eventually broken.

This is in fact the core thesis of my book (tentatively titled "The Community of Mind," except this sounds too intellectual and doesn't imply that it's about mental illness and spirituality...). That a healthy human mind is in fact distributed over a network of people, and that what we mis-label illness within an individual is in fact a symptom of non-functioning networks. The worst possible case would be complete social isolation -- no contact whatsoever with friends, family, lovers, or the human canon (books, movies, art, music, etc.) I think this does lead to cases like the Unibomber.

The more positive implications of this model are that mental health is attainable in a humanistic way, independent of esoteric medical explanations of the mind. A healthy person does not make all their own decisions, regulate their own moods, determine all their own beliefs. They don't in other words have the full weight of life on their own shoulders. Rather, a healthy person, by interacting with others, relies on a sort of collective consciousness to make decisions, regulate biochemical states, and assign values and beliefs to experience. The more people you interact with, and the more diverse the relationships in terms of types of people, roles, and levels of interaction, the larger and more robust your mind will be, and like studies on ecology show, a more complex and diverse system is healthier and more adaptable to inevitable change.

This is one reason CrazyBoards is so helpful. For people who, according to my theory, are cut off from a healthy network to a degree that has become quite difficult, the most receptive people to network with are other mentally ill people. We literally get healthier by connecting with each other.

Don't know if this addresses your question whatsoever :) but it's the most I've divulged publicly about my book. There are a lot of studies on the negative effects of social isolation, and curiously one of the only things all major schools of psychology seem to agree on is that the size and density of one's social network is the most reliable indicator of mental health and in fact happiness. I would assume this means that social isolation would correlate to the same screwed up neurotransmitters, negative affect, DSM symptomology, etc that we associate with mental illness, though it probably differs from case to case.

Personally I've always struggled with social isolation, haveing been raised the only child of a single mother, herself the only child of an only child. We moved around a lot (I'd been to 8 schools when graduating high school), so it was actually impossible to forge long-term relationships with all one learns from that. Add to this my mother being a bit unstable, traumatizing me when I was young and then being rather emotionally ... let's just call it borderline, for most of my life, and it's not surprising that I'm essentially afraid of people. And yet, I've been tested as exactly between introverted and extroverted, and have lived periods of social outgoingness where I'm much more comfortable with others than alone, and the reverse. I think it's probably true that people learn a sort of comfort zone in childhood, so an only child probably does need more alone time in general than someone born with 5 siblings and relatives next door. Probably the latter person would suffer much more from isolation, or more quickly, than the former. But ultimately, we are pack animals, designed to be social.

I'm all rambly today. I need to take my damn meds.

Hope others will feel free to ignore my post and answer Mellow's question, 'cause it's a great topic.

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That's an awesome post! I've seen the "use it or lose" phenomenon in two mentally ill members of my family. One is my brother, who lives out in the wilderness backpacking or on a small boat. He used to be the most gregarious guy you could imagine, loved women, etc. Now, he has no friends - and of most concern, he no longer dates anyone! I think he has already lost his sex drive in his '40s, due to alcohol and mental illness. Very sad.

I'd also like to see some good links here about this subject, perhaps on research. I will also look when I have the time. Thanks!

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That's an awesome post! I've seen the "use it or lose" phenomenon in two mentally ill members of my family. One is my brother, who lives out in the wilderness backpacking or on a small boat. He used to be the most gregarious guy you could imagine, loved women, etc. Now, he has no friends - and of most concern, he no longer dates anyone! I think he has already lost his sex drive in his '40s, due to alcohol and mental illness. Very sad.

I'd also like to see some good links here about this subject, perhaps on research. I will also look when I have the time. Thanks!

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I don't have any links or research, just experience.

I am extremely socially isolated. I have no energy, and outside of work find it almost impossible to relate to people. I have social phobia, and probably avoidant personality disorder, but these are meaningless terms.

Ever since childhood I've been unable to relate to people, and the isolation drives me crazy. But I have almost no energy to do anything except survival-oriented things (I.e. work, and getting a minimal amount of food into my system so I don't starve to death). I read a lot of poetry, science stuff, so I am culturally connected in that sense. But social isolation that is lifelong and relentless is a miserable proposition. Maybe there is a humane therapist out there, so i do not give up hope, but the ones I have had the misfortune to encounter have not been such.

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Thanks, all. I was sure that I read something somewhere about how social isolation actually changes the shape and/or chemicals in the brain! Aha, with a Google search on "social isolation and the brain" many items pop up. Here's one:

From: http://www.blackwell-synergy.com/links/doi....2000.0750732.x

Journal of Neurochemistry

Volume 75 Issue 2 Page 732

 

Social Isolation-Induced Decreases in Both the Abundance of Neuroactive Steroids and GABAA Receptor Function in Rat Brain  

Mariangela Serra, Maria Giuseppina Pisu, Martino Littera, Giacomo Papi, Enrico Sanna, Francesca Tuveri, Luca Usala, Robert H Purdy* & Giovanni Biggio

The effects of social isolation on behavior, neuroactive steroid concentrations, and GABAA receptor function were investigated in rats. Animals isolated for 30 days immediately after weaning exhibited an anxiety-like behavioral profile in the elevated plus-maze and Vogel conflict tests. This behavior was associated with marked decreases in the cerebrocortical, hippocampal, and plasma concentrations of pregnenolone, progesterone, allopregnanolone, and allotetrahydrodeoxycorticosterone compared with those apparent for group-housed rats ; in contrast, the plasma concentration of corticosterone was increased in the isolated animals. Acute footshock stress induced greater percentage increases in the cortical concentrations of neuroactive steroids in isolated rats than in group-housed rats. Social isolation also reduced brain GABAA receptor function, as evaluated by measuring both GABA-evoked Cl- currents in Xenopus oocytes expressing the rat receptors and tert-[35S]butylbicyclophosphorothionate ([35S]TBPS) binding to rat brain membranes. Whereas the amplitude of GABA-induced Cl- currents did not differ significantly between group-housed and isolated animals, the potentiation of these currents by diazepam was reduced at cortical or hippocampal GABAA receptors from isolated rats compared with that apparent at receptors from group-housed animals. Moreover, the inhibitory effect of ethyl--carboline-3-carboxylate, a negative allosteric modulator of GABAA receptors, on these currents was greater at cortical GABAA receptors from socially isolated animals than at those from group-housed rats. Finally, social isolation increased the extent of [35S]TBPS binding to both cortical and hippocampal membranes. The results further suggest a psychological role for neurosteroids and GABAA receptors in the modulation of emotional behavior and mood.

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I think my OCD symptoms might have gotten more overt due to years of isolation.

I always had it, but I started talking to myself a LOT more after a few years of being alone.  No idea about actual brain functioning, though.  It's an interesting question. 

The biggest thing is fairly obvious---with no one around to tell you when you're doing something weird, you have no way of judging your own behavior. 

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Oh, what a great question. This deserves some research.

I have no doubt that lack of social interaction is a negative influence.

I do feel better when I have been aroung people, but I can only take so much of them without significant time alone to recover.

A.M.

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I used to be bothered more by it than I am now---of course, I found a fellow isolate and we married, though we both still have social phobia toward the outside world.  But we're splitting up eventually and I'll be alone again, but I'm really okay with it. 

I dunno, I just wish I hadn't wasted all that time when I was younger worrying about being alone, because I'm getting to where I prefer it. 

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i used to fear i'd lose it if i didn't upkeep...but i noticed, with too much interaction and demands to keep up a front of pleasant sanity, my voice would get ragged, my conversation and gestures more forced and irritable.

in a winter of isolation there always seemed to blossom a sudden spring of devil-may-care joyfulness and ease of sociability. like i had nothing to lose anymore, none of the careful shoring up of social stock supposedly gained.

the way i see it is you are always practicing interaction with yourself, books, movies. All of these things are genuinely affectively moving because we are fundamentally human. when all my social credit is lost and i'm left with nothing but me, ME is who i'll be. i find it kind of liberating.

and some of our best work is done in our mad isolated world--another consolation prize.  ;)

7

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  • 9 months later...

Jemini:

curiously one of the only things all major schools of psychology seem to agree on is that the size and density of one's social network is the most reliable indicator of mental health and in fact happiness

I don;t know about that, Jemini!

That would make Paris Hilton Ms Mental Health poster child - and Thoreau one of the greatest misfits ever. As with everything, quality trumps quantity any day.

I believe it's as important to enjoy ones solitary company as to be able to relate intimately to another. Ones ideal ratio, is individual though what one actually gets, is often not a matter of choice. It's hard for the elderly to get around, for instance, much less to meet new people.

OTOH I'm sure there are plenty of women in third world societies, who by nature, would have enjoyed a lot more solitude.

For example, one of the things I found most horrifying in Turkey - X's home turf - was the way women were expected to cater to inlaws. Extended family could - and DID - show up on ones doorstep, packed for months of uninvited visiting. Not even a warning phone call! My mother in law and I got along much better owing to not having a common language. I deliberately decided NOT to learn Turkish! (And I love languages).

I like to be with people. I like to be alone. Even an outing to the grocery store, will often lead to intimate talks with strangers. . I've met some of my most unforgettable people during delayed airline flights too.

But more and more, I tend to stay put and even actively avoid contact, Not too many shoehorns come seeking you out after a while. I am grateful to many though - old friends and would-be new ones - who persevered long after humanly expectable, by ANY standards.

From what I hear, there are others, though, who might well examine their compulsive need to be surrounded by people all the time. For years after our marriage broke up, X used to hang out in bars most of the night, a well-known character. It was the only place I knew I could reach him (this was pre cell phones).

The use it or lose it part, applies most to stimulation - not really " intellectual"- what one gets from exchanges with others. Even arguments and controversy. Without that, neurons start to die and circuitry loses plasticity. Definitely contributes to dementia.

Sex too (*sigh*)

Some kinds of MI lead to isolation (schizophrenia especially) and must be fought for the sake of basic health. And yeah, true, unless you've got a real folie a deux (or more) going, being ariound others is also important to avoid losing track of eccentricity. I see the Unibomber as seeking out isolation because of his deviance more than the other way around. The isolation made him still weirder though. (Do you think he changed his underwear every day? ;) )

Most important for basic health maintenance (re the quote above) is not just a network, but a SUPPORT network. People do need each other, and as the saying goes, "no one is rich enough to do without neighbors": Unfortunately, many of us are forced to and it's scary.

We also need to feel liked and validated, That too, isn't always that easy to come by though we have a lot more control there. For one thing, it's a case where giving definitely leads to getting (and also to forgetting our focus on ourselves).

For wealhier isolates, much social contact comes from paid sources - shopping, medical visits, therapy(!) and even (sadly) relations who wouldn't have anything to do with you except for thoughts of an inheritance (always kept dangling).

I worry that I am getting too "set in my ways" to have another life partner (if so, it would really be my first, in the meaning of partnership :) ). It's easy to get used to "having everything our own way." OTOH anyone who 's been in a truly hellish marriage, knows that being alone is vastly preferable to being with the wrong someone.

rt

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The use it or lose it part, applies most to stimulation - not really " intellectual"- what one gets from exchanges with others. Even arguments and controversy. Without that, neurons start to die and circuitry loses plasticity. Definitely contributes to dementia.
Eek. That scares me. I have spent, cumulatively, years in isolation. hmmmm...
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Eek. That scares me. I have spent, cumulatively, years in isolation. hmmmm...

Oh, me too Libby, Me and the squirrels (sorry that was a low blow, but I have more than you do. More nuts, I guess! ;) )

Anyhow, Hey, I'm not an oracle.

First of all, EVERYTHING causes dementia (By 85 or so. 50% of survivors have Alzheimers. Hmm, this is not turning out as cheerful as I'd intended.)

Secondly, I've lived - oh, EONS, in isolation. And just look at me. I turned out fine, just fine, better than fine! Heheheheeeheeeeeeee. . :) (very much missing emoticon of twirley finger at temple).

realityt

PS What ever happened about your teeth and that superschmuck endodontist? BTW, I'm enjoying your periodic postings of the monthly menu from that econo-food shopping center. Thanks! - and keep it up. You may be keeping families alive with the link, without anyone giving you credit !

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Oh, me too Libby, Me and the squirrels (sorry that was a low blow, but I have more than you do. More nuts, I guess! ;) )

Anyhow, Hey, I'm not an oracle.

First of all, EVERYTHING causes dementia (By 85 or so. 50% of survivors have Alzheimers. Hmm, this is not turning out as cheerful as I'd intended.)

Secondly, I've lived - oh, EONS, in isolation. And just look at me. I turned out fine, just fine, better than fine! Heheheheeeheeeeeeee. . :) (very much missing emoticon of twirley finger at temple).

realityt

PS What ever happened about your teeth and that superschmuck endodontist? BTW, I'm enjoying your periodic postings of the monthly menu from that econo-food shopping center. Thanks! - and keep it up. You may be keeping families alive with the link, without anyone giving you credit !

Why are squirrels a low blow? I love my squirrels. I even have a feeder for them, since my bird feeders are squirrel-proof!

Endodontistdickhead: Bill was $1,200 for root canal. I only paid $500 up front. "Only." hah. Anyhow, I never went back for the filling part, still owed them the $700 and thought I'd have to go through all kinds of crap to not get billed to death and turned over to bill collectors.

I was gearing up to write them and say I refused to pay the rest, blabla, and then a check for $50 arrived in the mail--yes, $50, not $500, but it was a partial refund. They only charged me $450 for half a root canal. So that was that. I considered myself lucky and blew it off. I still have a big cavern in my tooth, which needs to be filled. I should probably get on that, huh?

Thanks for the comments on the cheapo food. I hope it is helping someone. It's helping me. If you know people in real life who could use it, pass it on. There's no qualifying or anything. It's for anybody. Last month it really saved me, and I think it will this month too.

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Currently, I'm performing an experiment to figure that out. The experiment involves moving to a small city in the South that doesn't have too many people my age (and with how stressed out I've been, it's recently been really hard for me to warm up to people).

I'll report back to y'all once I go insane.

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if you wanted to be purely biochemical you might note that it lowers serotonin, inhibits sexual drive, plays with appetite and sleep cycles.
Hmm... It hasn't worked that way for me. The causal relationship between MI and seclusion is that my mental illnesses drove me to seek isolation. I've always struggled with depression and anxiety disorders, though they have been ratched up a few notches since becoming a recluse. It's extremely stressful not having close relationships, not getting validation and acceptance from others, and stress does have a markedly detrimental impact on the brain. I recently read an article about how chronic stress shrinks the hippocampus, and recluses are not the only ones liable to experience chronic and intense feelings of anxiety. I've known a few very social people whose MIs drove them to seek constant companionship, and they, too, experienced an amplification of their problems as a result of their MI-connected behavior.

the way i see it is you are always practicing interaction with yourself, books, movies. All of these things are genuinely affectively moving because we are fundamentally human. when all my social credit is lost and i'm left with nothing but me, ME is who i'll be. i find it kind of liberating.

There is a definite up-side to spending time in isolation. No longer pressured to conform to societal standards of behavior, no longer compromising my self-respect in order to score points with others, I've learned more about what makes me tick and what my values and tolerance levels are. I've become more me, which would not have happened for a social phobe like myself who was surrounded daily by people whose favor I was contantly trying to curry any way I could.

I worry that I am getting too "set in my ways" to have another life partner

Oh, me too, me too. Only, I see that as a good thing. I was too passive, too willing to accept abuse and the affection of people who did not cherish me. Now that I've learned I can be by myself and don't need a love relationship to survive, I'm no longer willing to put up with crap. That is a very good thing!

Also, I haven't lost any social skills because I never had any to lose ;):)

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  • 3 weeks later...

I'm not sure. I'm still socially isolated from the most part, but since I'm used to it, it's difficult to determine how exactly it's affected me. I do know it's made non-human things more real and vice versa. I tend to replace social interaction with reading and writing. Or just thinking. The excitement of parties or whatever people do isn't available, and so a person becomes more creative I believe-- although, yes, it can make one go a bit mad in a sense. For instance- breathing walls. Inanimate objects that seem to be more alive than they once were. Someone mentioned talking to themselves more. That too, definitely. It's almost like having another person to talk to, just talking to yourself. Even if it just muttering and nonsensical babble. My sleep schedule is pretty nonexistent/screwed up, so perhaps that has something to do with it.

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What does social isolation do to the brain?

Makes Homer go crazy.

I know little about neurochemistry. I can say that prolonged periods of social isolation allow all my social skills to atrophy. I can practically feel the creak of my ill-used jaw when I first make small talk after weeks of seclusion. I also find that returning to society after a prolonged period of social isolation means an ongoing rise in my anxiety levels. Conversely, I need a great deal of personal time to keep my head from exploding. I've yet to identify the perfect balance.

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