Isolation: Individual, Social, Cosmic

For centuries, philosophers have debated the duality and unity of the mind and the brain.  What has been forgotten is the third entity  – the environment within which both exist. Isolation from the environment can have profound effects on the existence of both the mind and the brain.

Total isolation from the environment happens in states of extreme sensory deprivation.  Imagine the elimination of vision, hearing, touch, smell, taste, and sensation of gravity.  Total darkness, no sound, and no sense of touch or taste and even not feeling the weight of your own body.  How long would somebody be able to stand this state of total sensory deprivation? Some may find it calming if it only lasts for a few minutes.  In fact, the sensory isolation tank, devised by John Lily, is used by commercial relaxation centers.  Beyond an hour or so, however, total sensory deprivation starts to disrupt mental functions and, if prolonged, can have more devastating effects.  A related phenomenon is the Ganzfeld effect, which refers to the exposure to a low-level uniform stimulus for a prolonged period and which can lead to the same effects as sensory deprivation.  It is unclear how many hours of total sensory deprivation a human being can tolerate.  However, the experience is so unpleasant and terrifying that it is a common technique that is used for torture and punishment of prisoners.  Any experiments investigating the sensory deprivation phenomenon are so unethical that they have been seldom reported. Even animal experiments of such states are difficult to find.  Prolonged sensory deprivation would lead to the total disruption of the experience of one’s own self.  In the beginning, a person loses their sense of time, and soon hallucinations and delusions set in. This terrifying state leads to anxiety, panic, and paranoia.   If a person cannot change his situation, then the prolonged deprivation leads to a state of hopelessness, helplessness, and depression. Suicidal tendencies are likely to emerge.   Varying sensory stimulation is therefore an essential biological need without which the human mind cannot function.  

Social isolation, in its extreme form, is a complete lack of contact with other human beings, and can have as devastating an effect on the human mind as sensory deprivation.  Social isolation is associated with loneliness but is not synonymous with it. Just like loneliness, it can be experienced even if the person is not isolated.  This is known as perceived social isolation.  Depending on its severity, the effects of social isolation can be as or even more devastating than sensory deprivation.  Isolation of children from their mothers can have a long-lasting impact on social behavior and physical health for the rest of a child’s life. Harlow’s experiments with baby monkeys taken away from their mothers and instead given an artificial mother led to the development of intense anxiety and depression.  Early life isolation has been shown to lead to atrophy in areas of the brain, particularly the hippocampus. In the elderly, social isolation is common leading to depression and cognitive deficiencies, including memory impairment. The effects of social isolation on the brain are so severe that a new discipline of social neuroscience has developed.  However, the impact of social isolation is not limited to the brain. It has been shown that even physical health is impacted. Increased levels of stress biomarkers have been measured in animal and human studies of social isolation.  Social isolation can quickly lead to a state of depression and anxiety.   Social isolation of white divorced males is identified as a high-risk factor for suicide. The social isolation of prisoners has also been linked to suicide. Social media and modern life have decreased social isolation but increased perceived social isolation. New communication technologies have reduced the social isolation of the elderly.  However, for the young, social media is a necessity but can lead to perceived social isolation if the individual is marginalized. Increased depression, paranoia, and suicidality are linked to actual or perceived social isolation. Therefore, social contact and interactions are innate needs without which humans can suffer from severe neurobiological and emotional disruption.

Cosmic isolation is the realization that humanity resides on a tiny planet from which it cannot escape and that there is no external communication from any extraterrestrial life or civilization.   Cosmic isolation is imbued with both the experience of sensory deprivation as well as social isolation. In some ways, we are not completely deprived of seeing the universe  – we see the moon, the sun, and the stars every day (except in big cities where the view is obscured by tall buildings, skyscrapers, and preoccupations of everyday terrestrial life).  Occasionally, we see meteor showers, comets, and eclipses with the naked eye. Courtesy of NASA, we are supplied with amazing photographs of distant galaxies, star clusters, and gas clouds giving birth to stars.  The amateur and professional astronomer can see much more with augmentation of their senses with highly sophisticated technologies of telescopes.  Telescopes are scattered all around the globe, turned towards the cosmos – listening and seeing.  So in a way, there should be no sensory deprivation except for the ordinary person who hardly looks up to the sky and for whom the moon and sun have become a routine sight.

However, some have likened our lack of communication with other life forms as analogous to deafness and other forms of sensory deprivation. Though our senses have been heightened with X-rays, gamma rays, and radio waves receiving telescopes, they are not part of our biological apparatus.  Unless the information from these instruments is turned into photographs or translated into frequencies that can be heard – they do not really relieve the cosmic sensory deprivation that humans feel.  More importantly, despite the sensory input that we receive, there is no ‘social’ communication.  No message, contact, or exchange with an extraterrestrial organization has been reliably received and recorded. That this is not a trivial need is evidenced by extensive science-fiction literature of imaginary alien beings and contact with them. Carl Sagan promoted the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI), a mission to search for extra-terrestrial life forms. The recent discovery of distance planets or exoplanets has generated considerable excitement.  This is despite the fact that these planets are almost infinite distances away and beyond the reach of the human civilization, which finds even escaping the gravity of earth challenging.  The vastness of space combined with the expanse of time makes it almost impossible that contact with an ET life will ever be made.  Yet human desire remains alive in the arts as well as in science to “seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.”  Therefore, cosmic isolation is a form of sensory deprivation and social isolation unique to humans. Even if there is no actual sensory deprivation, the uniformity of the unchanging infinite universe could exert a Ganzfed effect of sorts on humanity. Moreover, the lack of any evidence of life forms in the vast universe can lead to an immense perceived social isolation.  What is the effect of this experience of this twin isolation on humanity?  Just like sensory and social isolation causes psychosis to set in in an individual, the sense of cosmic isolation may be the cause of many of humanity’s irrational thoughts (religious delusions, UFOs, intense desire to make contact with alien beings) and self-destructive behaviors (creating nuclear war and climate change akin to suicide,).  

Unlike sensory and social isolation, cosmic isolation is not the deprivation of an essential or innate biological need but an acquired sense of isolation as we get to know more and more about the universe.  However, even though it is an abstract concept and acquired need, the perceived sense of cosmic isolation may be the most devastating as it affects the humankind as a whole. There is also no escape from cosmic isolation – all a person has to do is it to look up. How humanity handles its sense of cosmic isolation will be critical to its survival and further evolution.

Space, Race, and Grace

The Dragon rocket roared and lifted off from NASA Cape Canaveral.  It flawlessly sped away from earth into the pristine realms of space.   Down below at Cape Canaveral, the people cheered.   But far away in Minneapolis USA, the crowd was not looking up.  The Black Lives Matter groups were protesting the senseless killing of a black man by the police.  Soon rioting, looting, and more violence will occur. Soon, amazingly, the astronauts would reach the space station and dock with it.   Once inside, they would meet with their colleagues already there and then together all would talk to the cameras.  Millions watched the five men with superior physiques and intelligence as they spoke with mission-control on earth.  Tens of millions watched the protests and the violence, which would grip the country in the coming days.

The next day, Elon Musk, the prophet of space travel,  sent a letter to all his employees.  He declared that now that the Dragon mission was successful, all resources of Space X will be focused on developing the Starship.  The Starship is the massive rocket developed by Space X, designed to take humans to the moon and then to Mars.  Elon Musk’s stated humanitarian mission is to colonize Mars so that mankind can survive.  Survive the dwindling resources on planet earth, an asteroid hit, or some other calamity. Except that there are still plenty of resources on earth and an asteroid hit is a remote possibility.  Implicit in Musk’s endeavor is the message that somehow, if mankind can go into outer space, most of its problems will be solved. Such is his passion that it seems not only a mission for mankind’s survival but for its salvation.  It is written that he had a traumatic childhood in South Africa until he escaped and came to America and found great success here.  So can mankind also escape its childhood and go to a different place and find happiness and success? 

While Dragon was getting ready to launch, a white policeman was pressing his knee into a black man’s neck until the black man died – while cameras watched.  The policeman looked straight at the cameras as if he was doing nothing wrong.  The whole world already reeling from a deadly COVID-19 virus, erupted.  It would be an understatement to say that the two pictures of the rocket and of the policeman kneeling on the neck of another human being, are highly incongruent to our minds.  How can so much technological progress take place while mankind’s moral behavior still remains the same as that of a million years back?  One can easily picture a Neanderthal leaning on another Neanderthal’s neck, a Mediaeval warrior doing the same, or this happening in the World Wars.   It also seems to be happening uninterrupted in the US from the time of the slave trade to the present.

In that respect, nothing has changed, and there are no signs that anything will change.  So it would be no surprise if, on Mars, a similar scene is enacted.  And just like back on earth, there may be another World War.  The US has already made plans for a Space Force, and other countries are doing the same.  Inevitably, conflict is likely.  Will there be a nuclear war in outer space.   At some time in the future, will humans on the earth watch flashes of energy on the moon and Mars, which they know are bombs being dropped on the enemy or by the enemy?  What would Musk think, if when he is old, this kind of scenario is playing out in front of his eyes?  Will he shrug it off, attributing it to the nature of mankind, and keep dreaming about conquering other planets.  The dichotomy and vast chasm between the thinking and the emotional aspects of human nature could never be greater.  And yet, we continue to struggle to explain these two aspects of human behavior.

A simple, if not simplistic, explanation is given by Koestler in his book – ‘The Ghost in the Machine.’ In the book he attributes the self-destructive nature of human beings to the flawed architecture of the brain. Mclean’s formulation of the triune brain with the cognitive, emotional, and reptilian brains working concurrently and to a large extent independently within the human brain, may also explain the contradictions of human behavior.  It would explain the rapid advancements in rocket technology while little or no improvement in humans’ violent and destructive nature. So if you go to the first-principles and see the brain as it is, you find a flawed structure.   And if that is the case, then reaching the moon and Mars is likely to amplify mankind’s tendency for self-destruction, rather than solve it.   

Freud, in a rare letter exchange with Einstein, was asked about how violent human conflict could be avoided. Freud expressed deep pessimism about the ability of humans to control their aggression. He felt that the only way this may be achieved is through social institutions which formulate a code of conduct for everybody to follow. Religion is one such social institution.   Messiahs of the world’s religions have all come up with solutions quite similar to each other, though in different forms and shapes.   ‘Love thy neighbor’ runs in all religions except in some when it is fine to be violent if you want the other to accept your gospel.  What is fascinating is that many of these solutions were formed hundreds and thousands of years ago.  But unlike the advancement in technology,  there has been no advancement in most religions’ moral code. In fact, the tendency is to interpret the religious doctrines, precisely as they were formulated thousands of years back.  Humankind has no confidence in its ability to interpret moral issues any better now than in the infancy of human civilization.  Needless to say that these interpretations are not only outdated but have often led to greater acts of violence.  The human tendency for violent behavior has increased and become much more threatening to mankind’s existence since man sailed and discovered new continents. And this tendency is likely to increase further when mankind colonizes the moon and Mars.

Musk may be advised to go back to the first-principles and also tackle the problem of the flaw in the human brain architecture. Developing the technology of matter without progress in the development of the mind may lead to even greater acts of self-destruction. However, it may be much more challenging to fix the flaws of the brain architecture – it is not rocket science.

Should Humans Colonize Mars (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Brain)

An argument to colonize Mars had gained considerable strength recently with some prominent scientists and business leaders expressing interest and drawing up plans to do so.   Mars, we are told, is very similar to Earth because of its similar diurnal cycle, existence of atmosphere, presence of water and even the possibility of life.   People however lament about the distance, the difficulty of aligning a spaceship towards Mars and difficulties of communicating with earth from so far away. But for the continuity of mankind, it is argued, it is essential to colonize another planet because a catastrophic event can happen anytime on earth – an asteroid hit or a war which leaves earth a nuclear wasteland.

Except that these two catastrophic scenarios are not the same. The first is a cosmic event over which mankind has little or no control. Humans themselves, however, will cause the second.   Despite the dangers of a full blown nuclear war being known now for nearly eight decades, mankind’s appetite for proliferation of weapons of mass destruction continues to increase unabated. Even if the existing nuclear stockpile was used in the event of a third world war a nuclear catastrophe on earth is assured. So the question arises that even if the humans were able to escape the nuclear catastrophe on earth and colonized Mars, will this scenario not replay again there. And if they escaped Mars and the same self-destructive event happened there they will need to go to another planet, then another planet and so on.   If mankind continues to develop technical abilities to develop more and more sophisticated weapons but at the same time continues to survive by hopping on to other planet(s) then in time the destructive capabilities of these weapons is bound to increase exponentially. It will then become just a matter of time whether humankind’s ability to find newer worlds can keep ahead of its capability for destroying itself.   And we will be back to the situation that we are at at present.

So before we colonize Mars, humankind may have to first confront its self-destructive tendencies, which lie deep in its brain make up. Otherwise the effort to colonize Mars may be a futile effort.   Business and scientific leaders and organizations who are focused on the technical (Musk, Enriquez, SETI etc.) aspects of colonizing Mars may want to first focus their efforts on how to make the human brain more capable of survival in the long run. Even if we do not get to Mars, such advances may make life better and more sustainable here on earth.