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.

Doors of Escape – Open or Closed: Substance Use and the Brain

Doors of EscapeSince time immemorial, humans have used substances to alter their brain function – but it has been mainly to get high.  In a 2015 review paper, researchers from Spain described that the earliest alcoholic drink dates back to nearly 7000 B.C. in China while coca leaves have been chewed since 8000 B.C. in South America.   Tobacco was being smoked from 2000 B.C. while opium has been found in skeletal remains since 600 B.C. and even prehistoric art shows use of poppy seeds in religious ceremonies.  Beside these obvious pleasure-inducing substances, hallucinogenic San Pedro cactus use has been suspected since 8600 B.C.  and mescaline, a psychedelic, use has been dated to at least 500 B.C.

Most substance use has been directed towards enhancing either emotions, thought or behavior – which usually works in the very short-term but in the long-term may actually make the brain more out of balance.  Alteration of the brain so as to lead to a more harmonious function for the betterment of society has been less of a focus of attention.  Are there any substances that can make the human brain better in terms of harmonizing emotions, thoughts and behavior?   This question has been seldom asked.

One of the characters in Kurt Vonnegut’s  book Galapagosstates – “Why so many of us knocked out major chunks of our brains with alcohol from time to time remains an interesting mystery.  It may be that we were trying to give evolution a nudge in the right direction – in the direction of smaller brain.”    Vonnegut in his half-humorous way seems to be implying that the size and workings of the brain may be too much for the brain to handle. The brain is an organ which is constantly working – producing thoughts, emotions and motor behavior that may be too exhausting or anxiety provoking and it’s functioning may need to be decreased or slowed down.  Even when there is no scarcity, humans still suffer from existential angst – a state of anxiety and lack of fulfillment that seems to be part of the human condition.  Substance use may help in decreasing this inherent state of human suffering.

Aldous Huxley chronicled his experiences under the psychedelic mescaline in the book –Door of Perception.  He was so impressed by the vivid and profound perceptions of trivial things such as a tree, the folds in his clothes, that he became a firm believer that drugs such as mescaline could lead to a state of transcendence.  He also talked about developing a substance, which only produced ‘good’ effects such as increasing our perceptions, thinking and sense of contentment but no side effects.  However, in his more famous book – Brave New World, he described a dystopian world in which the dictatorial regime made such a substance called Soma available for free use for everybody as a means of societal control.  A recent  (troubling) trend is the return of the acceptability of use of psychedelic drugs such as marijuana, ketamine and psilocybin, not only for their medicinal properties but also as lifestyle drugs in healthy individuals.

Arthur Koestler in his book ‘Ghosts in the Machine’( disagreed with Huxley that drugs like mescaline and LSD can lead to some kind of Nirvana when the inherent architecture of the brain continues to remains faulty or may actually get more damaged. In the book, Koestler, gives a detailed exposition about why the faulty brain architecture may be the cause of most of humankind’s problems including the possibility of future extinction.  Next he asks –  what can be done about the situation and whether some kind of substance induced manipulation could make the thinking and emotional parts of the brain work more harmoniously?   According to Koestler, a substance that can cure the paranoid streak in mankind without other potential side effects may be the only way mankind could be saved. Koestler acknowledges that even the idea of this kind of tampering with the brain may seem fantastic and not acceptable but he states that humans would readily accept such a substance because they would see its positive effects in themselves in terms of feeling healthier.   Eventually society will see its benefits and it may even  be added to the water supply such as chlorine is added at this time.  Koestler’s hope of finding such a substance seems to be wishful thinking.  Moreover, though he used terms such as harmonious working or cooperation of brain areas with each other – he left these concepts vague.  What exactly would feeling more ‘healthy’ mean if such a state was achieved?  Koestler says that effect in an individual may be difficult to perceive but  communities will see beneficial effects such as decrease in crime rates and suicide.

Though many new psychopharmacological agents have been introduced since 1967 when ‘Ghosts in the Machine” was first published, most have been developed to treat psychiatric illnesses.  Even though the mechanism of many of the mood regulating, anxiolytics and antipsychotics is purported to be better coordination of the cortex and the limbic system – no clear cut evidence exists that these medications actually have such an effect.  Furthermore, these medications have significant side effects and administering them to healthy subjects or adding them to the drinking water seems to be out of the question.  So does any evidence exist for a substance which can change brain architecture so that the dissonance between the new cortical thinking areas and the old emotional areas can be decreased and adding it to the drinking water can lead to a decrease in society’s ills.

Lithium is a monovalent ion like sodium which is naturally found in water and in some geographical areas it is in higher concentrations compared to others.  It has been used since the early sixties in psychiatry when John Cade in Melbourne, Australia discovered that it could be used for the treatment of Bipolar Disorder. It can relieve depression, decrease manic symptoms and can also lead to mood stability.  It is one of the most neurotrophic substances known to man in that it has been shown to lead to an increase in the growth of neurons.  Beside mood stability, it has also been shown to decrease impulsive behaviors such as violence.  The only limitation for its widespread use is that in higher concentrations it is highly toxic and can lead to brain damage, cardiac arrhythmias and kidney failure.   However, in very low doses, as that are present in drinking water, it hardly has any discernible effect.  Several studies have reported lithium concentration in drinking water to  be inversely correlated with population suicide rates, homicide and crimes.  Therefore, it would seem that lithium, in low concentrations would come closest to the substance that Koestler was thinking of.  Unfortunately,  at this time the mechanism of action of lithium is not known. It also remains the only substance in its class and no other substance has yet been found which has a similar effect as lithium on mood regulation.

Even if a substance like lithium was found to have properties, which could better an individual’s mental life and decrease societal ills, it is unlikely to have a major effect in adults in whom the brain is fully formed and has limited capability of change.  So the doors of escape seem to be locked in this regard unless such a substance is shown to have an effect on children’s developing brain or even on the fetus soon after conception.   How can such an effect be studied remains an open question.