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.

The Mind of A Virus (COVID-19): Watson, Turing and Searle

Does the virus have a mind? Is it thinking? Is it scheming how it can inflict maximum damage?  From how we describe it (we have not attributed a gender yet), it would seem that not only does it have a mind, but it has a very devious and highly calculating one.  Consider a recent interview of a famous virologist who tested positive and had a severe life-threatening illness.  In the interview, he says – “they (the viruses) got me, I sometimes thought.  I have devoted my life to fighting viruses, and finally, they get their revenge”.  Or from an article in the journal Nature– “ once the invader’s genetic material gets inside the cell, the virus commandeers the host molecular machinery to produce new viral particles.  Then, the progeny exit the cell to go and infect others.” Besides invader, other references to the virus are – the invisible enemy and the enemy with which we are at war.

One could attribute these descriptions of the virus to our tendency for personification and animism. It may sound ridiculous to think that a virus has a mind.  But that depends on what we call a mind.  And as it turns out, it is not easy to define what is a ‘mind’ as it remains a debated subject in a field of philosophy called the ‘Philosophy of Mind.’  Starting from Descartes, whose cogito ergo sum divided the brain and the mind, philosophers and neuroscientists have been debating the nature of what is called the mind and how it relates to the physical aspect of the organism.  The debate is mostly about the human mind, but arguments to support or deny a mind in other animals such as a cat or a dog, which appear to possess a mind, are also proposed.  The argument however, has never stretched to the earliest living entities – the viruses. Viruses are so ancient and rudimentary that even their status as living organisms is questionable.  But currently, in the middle of a pandemic, COVID19 has proven to be not only a formidable problem, but it also appears to be highly intelligent.  It has spread over the whole world in the space of a few months.  It has infected and killed hundreds of thousands of humans, a species which prided itself on having a monopoly over an intelligent mind. It has many ways of spreading and surviving on all sorts of objects for several days.  Once inside a human, there is widespread damage within cells of lungs, heart, and kidney, while the immune response is either too little or too much. All this time, the virus replicates relentlessly.  Though humans may be projecting their own thoughts when they describe the virus’s intentional behavior, it becomes more and more difficult not to think that there is a ‘mind’ of the virus, which creates the havoc.  In fact,  some theories of philosophy-of-mind are compatible with the notion that the virus has a mind.

Behaviorism, as conceptualized in psychology (Watson, Skinner) or within the field of philosophy-of-mind terms, postulates that mental states are just descriptions of behavior or dispositions to behave in certain ways made by third parties to explain and predict another’s behavior (Glibert Ryle 1949).  In such a formulation, we do not have to postulate the existence of mental states even in humans. And if survival behavior is the sole description needed for a seemingly intentional mental state, then the virus’s behavior can be used to conceptualize the  ‘mind’ of the virus.  Attachment to specific receptors, cleaving of the human cell wall, replication by hijacking the host’s resources, bursting out of the cell to infect other cells, and spreading in the blood could all be labeled as intentional and intelligent behavior. Furthermore,  maneuvers to escape the host’s immune mechanisms and change the host’s response (e.g., cough or seek the comfort of other humans which could serve as hosts) so that further spread could occur, could be taken as evidence of an intelligent mind.  After all, these behaviors have ensured survival for millions of years of the virus or its ancestors.  Under behaviorism, for the presence of a ‘mind’, the actions of the virus are all that matter.   Under this theory, the personification of the virus attributing to it intent, purpose, and even intelligence are not absurd or off the mark.

Cognitivism is another theory about what constitutes a mind. It attributes the working of the brain to be similar to a computer.  The brain’s operations are thought to be similar to computer processes or computer states carried out by the brain’s hardware.  A separate consciousness or mind is not required.  If a computer’s behavior is indistinguishable from that of a human,  then according to the famous ‘Turing Test‘ it could be said that a computer has a mind. The virus RNA can be thought of as hardware on which the computer program of the arrangement of the genetic code runs. One could perceive the ensuing behavior of the virus in terms of survival, deception of the host, and hijacking the host’s resources as very human-like behavior.   In this respect, the virus can very much be thought of as having a ‘mind’ and working intelligently and with intent to infect hosts and host-cells and replicating itself.

Objections to both behaviorism and cognitivism and similar monistic philosophies of the mind have been raised by many.  Searle’s Chinese Room argument showed that even though all computations can be carried out by a computer, it still does not know what it is doing devoid as it is of any semantic meaning.  Other objections relate to the absence of the so-called ‘qualia’ – the something else which makes us conscious and have intent and possibly free will.  It is hard to ascribe consciousness and subjective experience to a virus.

So if consciousness, behaviorism, and cognitivism are rejected, then what are we left with?  How do we explain the mindless virus, which is proving to be a formidable match for the superior intelligence that we are so proud of?  What we are left with is the randomness of nature, which has helped the virus survive possibly for 300 million years once it was formed.  Once, millions of years back, when a random piece of RNA bumped into a cell and got inside, chance had it that some proteins were formed, which enveloped the RNA and preserved it.  By chance, at some point in a long time, it came in contact with other cells and was able to repeat the cycle, and the more efficient processes survived.   Then again, by chance over millions of years, the virus’s spreading properties increased. Still, it remained hidden in wild animals such as bats with a limited random spread. Until, one day, it got exposed to organisms with large organs full of air and studded with proteins that it had perfected attaching to.  As it spread, the only constraint to its randomness was the non-random concentration of these living beings with large aerated organs and a tendency to be in close approximation.  The non-random or intelligent behavior attributed to it is actually the non-randomness in its environment constructed by humans.  In that sense, our own intelligence is reflected in the virus, our own manipulation of the environment.