This is my situation: I’m in a hotel room. I’m shooting a drama series away from home. But I am also writing for it. I’m wearing many hats. And my existence has become an extreme contrast between one the most extroverted activities – acting – and one of the most introverted ones – writing.
That said, my days are either spent on a set, surrounded by dozens of people, performing, or they’re whiled away in my hotel room, alone, staring at a laptop screen. It’s a strange dichotomy to say the least.
But it’s the isolation that interests me most, because as I spend more and more time alone, I find myself … acting strangely. And, of course, having the Internet at my fingertips, and the need to procrastinate in my heart, I can look up the effects of isolation on the brain. What I found is astounding.
People kept in extreme isolation, that is, with no meaningful human contact, begin to suffer an array of ailments. Indeed, prisoners kept isolated for extended periods have been known to hear screaming only to realise that the screams are coming from themselves. Sounds like a horror movie.
In experiment done at McGill University in Montreal, volunteers were to spend days or weeks alone in soundproofed cubicles. They wore visors, gloves, all designed to restrict any input they might perceive. It didn’t take long for the volunteers to start acting nuts.
After a few hours they were singing to themselves, reciting poetry, whatever they could do to break the monotony. Then they became emotional and anxious. Their ability to perform simple arithmetic and word tests began to fail.
And they hallucinated. It started with points of light, but soon the lights would become shapes and entire scenes. One person saw squirrels marching, others saw only dogs, another saw only babies. And, of course, there were sound hallucinations. People imagined hearing music, or gun shots.
Basically, you take a normal person, isolate them, and they go crazy. Text book, locked up with Hannibal Lecter, crazy. And the most unsettling thing about the McGill experiments is that they wanted to isolate their volunteers for weeks. But few made it past a couple days. And not one of them made it a full week.
All the experiments were stopped early because of the extreme stress on the volunteers. So how to make a normal person insane? Isolate them for a day. Two days max, and you’ve got yourself a newly christened crazy person.
So, technically, I could be at risk here in my lonely hotel room, writing dialogue for TV shows with only the incessant knocking of the cleaning lady asking me if I want to change my towels as company.
And, honestly, after a full day writing and staring at the screen, I did find myself talking to myself, asking myself questions, singing Leaving On Jet Plane in a really low tone that was audible only to me. Seriously, I never talk or sing to myself.
So what is going on? Why do our minds crumble so easily when we’re isolated (or left to our own devices to write scripts which is my case)? Well, clearly, writing scripts is frustrating, but the simple answer is: humans are social beings. We aren’t rigged to be alone.
Forget extreme isolation, people who merely feel alone are more prone to infection and developing dementia and Alzheimer’s. Our minds are geared to process a lot of information. We see, smell, hear, touch, taste, our mind is taking in tons of data at any given moment so when we take all that stimulus away, it doesn’t know what to do. It can’t shut off.
The brain keeps working, trying to make sense of the stimuli – which in the case of extreme isolation is nothing. Our brains are great at finding meaning and patterns but what happens when there are no patterns to be found? It finds them anyway. It creates images and whole scenes from the little bit we see.
Our emotions go crazy because we only get meaning from them from contact with others. Our emotions, and the emotions of others, are road signs to understanding other people. But on our own, what do our emotions mean? They’re meant to convey something but without anyone to perceive them, what happens?
Forget the tree falling in the forest, if someone gets angry by themselves in a room, do they make any noise? Not functionally. When we’re left to ourselves, our emotions can run amuck with no one to bounce off of or perceive them.
So maybe these bouts of acting are saving me from myself as I write constantly in my hotel room, alone. The human mind is an incredible thing – so powerful but so fragile at the same time.
In any case, now I understand why I’m talking to myself and singing Bob Denver songs. And thanks to my procrastination at least when I start hallucinating, I’ll know why.
Catch Jason Godfrey on The LINK on Life Inspired (Astro B.yond Ch 728).