staring blankly
October 16, 2010, 12:28 am
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , , ,

Some people are flinty — I’ll include myself here — have trouble with easy relations with others.  Who knows why?  Perhaps it’s a combination of personality and social conditioning.  Below is an account of an experiment with monkeys that goes horribly wrong, followed by a discussion of the wrongness of putting people in solitary confinement.  In both cases, solitary leads to an inability to cope effectively and naturally in human relations.

There must be a scale, degrees of confinement to which people are subjected in their lives.  At one end, minor instances of being left out — in school yard play, and adult social relations — in an otherwise connected, healthy life.  And at the extreme end, surely the worst is being locked in an American Supermax cell.  The time away, with only yourself, only your own mind against which to sharpen your thought, waxing and waning surety and doubt, your inability to corroborate, negotiate, discuss, advise, reason, reaffirm, learn to love, reset, come back, open to, fall into, and finally to love.  Which says nothing of the need to touch, sleep against, caress, hold.

Isolation is the ultimate betrayal in human relations.  You’re not human like us, we say when we isolate others.  Even violent prisoners.  And then when they finally get out, they’ve been so deprived of human qualities of life that we don’t recognize their alien, harsh, survivalist behavior:  a cruel self fulfilling prophesy.  Ironically, we turn them into people we can’t be with and then let them out to be with us.

From Hell Hole, by Atul Gawande:

We are social in a more elemental way: simply to exist as a normal human being requires interaction with other people. Children provide the clearest demonstration of this fact, although it was slow to be accepted. Well into the nineteen-fifties, psychologists were encouraging parents to give children less attention and affection, in order to encourage independence. Then Harry Harlow, a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, produced a series of influential studies involving baby rhesus monkeys. He happened upon the findings in the mid-fifties, when he decided to save money for his primate-research laboratory by breeding his own lab monkeys instead of importing them from India. Because he didn’t know how to raise infant monkeys, he cared for them the way hospitals of the era cared for human infants—in nurseries, with plenty of food, warm blankets, some toys, and in isolation from other infants to prevent the spread of infection. The monkeys grew up sturdy, disease-free, and larger than those from the wild. Yet they were also profoundly disturbed, given to staring blankly and rocking in place for long periods, circling their cages repetitively, and mutilating themselves.


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.”

HELLHOLE by Atul Gawande