So a woman emerges from a bunker after 15 years. She's cheerful and ready to embrace life. It's the premise of the recent Netflix series The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, but what is the reality? What do years of isolation and confinement actually do to a person's brain?

Personal Isolation Versus Group Isolation

There are few types of torture more effective than deprivation. We found that out in 1958, when a psychologist named Donald Hebb decided to do some research on extreme isolation. Each member of a group of volunteers was locked in a separate cell. Some were kept in dark rooms. Some were put in restraints and wore goggles and white noise ear phones. It took only a couple of hours for them to get restless. It took only a day for their performance on cognitive tests to slip. After two days they were hallucinating. The test was a week long and not a single volunteer made it through. The experiment itself has been criticized, both for its techniques and for its results, which show that lack of stimulation annihilates people.


The study was done on people in total isolation, but it provided clues to the behavior of people in — excuse the oxymoron — group isolation. There is no one way that people respond to this kind of thing, because there are endless ways that the conditions of this isolation can vary. A specially-trained submarine crew is isolated and academics on a space station are isolated and a group of abused children is isolated. All of their experiences are wildly different, but there is a small thread of common response that we can examine to find out what it is like when your world is narrowed down to a few yards and a few people.

The Brain Needs Stimulus To Maintain Itself

The Hebb experiments' most dramatic outcomes were the visual and auditory hallucinations. People heard choirs and saw spaceships. Some parts of their brains were kicked into overdrive by the lack of stimulus. Less well-known, but scarier, is the fact that other parts of their brains were dissolving. The subjects lost the ability to think with clarity and precision about anything. They couldn't keep their thoughts on track. If the mind doesn't have something to do, it will make tasks for itself, but the brain alone simply can't provide the kind of stimulation necessary to keep itself going.


A stomach-turning example of this came to light in the late 1980s, after a revolution in Romania deposed the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. When Ceausescu first came to power, he encouraged people to have children and expand the population. The succeeding years of population growth paired with poverty and political strife resulted in a huge orphan population. Orphan babies and small children were kept in warehouses, where babies were routinely left in cribs staring at blank ceilings every day, all day. More mobile children were often chained to their beds.

Aid workers expected that such orphanages would be ear-splittingly loud. They weren't. They were nearly silent. Children didn't, and often couldn't, talk. The babies were so understimulated that they were cross-eyed because they couldn't focus their eyes properly. Take away anything to react to and people stop reacting.

The children, though provided with a balanced diet and enough food, never seemed to grow. When researchers did MRIs on the kids, they found that the children's brains were physically smaller than the brains of children who weren't institutionalized. Their IQ scores averaged around 73. Fortunately, these results weren't set in stone. When the children were taken in by foster families, many of them began physically and mentally developing extremely quickly. They did show the ability to "catch up" to children who hadn't been deprived. Still, the isolation and understimulation shows that brain development isn't just a matter of "the will to learn." Brains physically can't develop without stimulation.


The brain also needs stimulation to maintain itself. Organizations like NASA and the military regularly study groups of adults and find that cognitive abilities decline fast when people don't have enough to respond to. Wintering scientists in Antarctica and submariners and simple experimental volunteers all mentally decline - at least going by their scores on cognitive tests - when confined to a small space with a small group of people. The mind can't keep working without plenty of things to occupy it.

The Body Stops Functioning

Some mental decline, among adults, has to be because of the way the body suffers when confined to a small space — especially because most of the spaces studied are indoors. One man who voluntarily spent months in a cave away from natural light experienced what he called "slow time." When asked to count out the seconds in a minute he counted incredibly slowly, taking over two minutes to count out sixty seconds. His sleep schedule would fluctuate wildly between 18 and 52 hours.

When people are in groups, the effect is less pronounced, but it's still there. The celebrated Mars 500 crew, who spent 17 months in isolation to simulate the effects of a trip to Mars, was entirely made up of dedicated and trained people - and they still had huge problems with their sleep schedule. For quite some time, scientists assumed that people confined for any long space mission would eventually fall into a 24-hour rhythm. The subjects of the Mars 500 experiment fell into all kinds of rhythms, including one that was twenty-five hours long and one that split the day into two 12-hour periods. These sleep period problems were minor, but over time they built up. The group suffered periods of excruciating insomnia and resulting lethargy.


Soviet scientists, studying long-term space flight, dubbed this sort of thing an "asthenic reaction." Exercise and rest can only do so much. Confined and isolated, people will undergo periods of debilitating weakness. The Mars 500 crew was able to fight the effects, in part because they volunteered to do important research for a cause that they believed in, but they couldn't avoid the physical consequences.

The Emotions Eventually Take Over

This physical exhaustion is real, but it may be exacerbated by emotional exhaustion. When studying groups that go into voluntary isolation, researchers notice a "third quarter effect." Whether the isolation lasts for a hundred days — as with some Antarctic overland crews — or four to six months, at some point people count the days and realize that all that they still have a long way to go before it's over, and their discouragement takes over.

The common factor for nearly every group was depression and weakness, but some people had more acute effects. Submarine crews and, to some extent, early Antarctic crews, experienced intense panic and anxiety. Their lives depended on equipment, and equipment could fail. As people ran out of distractions, smaller anxieties were blown out of proportion. The combination of lack of distraction and helplessness gave people intense panic attacks, or constant grinding anxiety.


The emotional effects of group isolation vary widely, because people are confined under widely different circumstances. The "third quarter effect," can only happen if the group knows when their isolation is going to end. The Chilean miners, who spent 69 days trapped underground, knew that people were coming for them. Although many experienced psychological after-effects, including panic attacks, they had more trouble dealing with the consequences of fleeting fame than they did with the actual isolation. Things are different for people who don't know if their term of confinement will ever be over.

The Self Clings To The New Version of "Normal"

Considering the conditions — sleep deprivation, lack of privacy, lack of variety, and in some cases extreme abuse — it's surprising that few people in this kind of group isolation actually lose their minds in the "screaming and babbling" sense of the phrase. This kind of reaction was generally expected. When Richard Byrd first led an expedition to Antarctica, he brought a number of straitjackets with him, expecting multiple members of his crew to go crazy.

In reality, people adjust, and sometimes they can adjust too well. We see this, again, with the Romanian orphans. While many competent people were involved in their care, foster families and even professionals often found themselves unable to help - because the children themselves weren't able to tolerate the change in their situation. Toddlers would desperately ask to be picked up, but then couldn't stand being held. Children who were raised in an abusive environment — and were sometimes recruited to physically hit the younger children in order to keep them in line — couldn't take a system that worked any other way. One boy said, "I respond better when you beat me, or when you smack me around... When you show me kindness, when you show me love, compassion, it seemed to make me even more angrier." There's only so much change a person can take, even if the change is good.



The need for consistency and for contact of any kind also explains why people who have been kidnapped will sometimes stay with their kidnappers even when given the chance to get away. Remember that, within 48 hours, complete isolation causes people to see snakes on the ceiling and hear music boxes in the walls. Attaching yourself to whoever is in an isolation chamber with you may be the only way to keep your brain functioning.

Who Does Well In Group Isolation?

Today group isolation situations tend to be expensive. We isolate groups to send them under the sea, or on long space voyages, or to remote locations on Earth where they will gather important data. Although utter psychosis is rare, it's better to pick a group of people who will get along.

Depressingly, you'll want a fairly homogeneous group. Differences create tension. Tension is fine when people can walk away for a while, but in these situations that isn't possible either physically or psychologically. Not only is there limited space, there's no way to separate yourself from a mission to Mars. As one of the Mars 500 crew pointed out, astronauts or scientists are, technically, always at work.


As for personality types, you very rarely want a "fearless leader" type. As great as that is for an action movie, it's terrible for a group. Two fearless leaders are even worse for the group. Generally, you want a person who is all about calm and cooperation. Surprisingly, socially awkward introverts are okay, although they can be prone to further withdrawal and isolation within the group. What you really don't want is socially awkward extroverts. Anyone who needs a lot of attention and stimulation has to be able to earn it, not just demand it.

In the end, it's important to realize that this kind of isolation hurts people badly. There is no good way to keep people in a small space with limited social contact. Any experiment, institution, or project that requires these conditions needs to be designed, from start to finish, with the understanding that it is ameliorating the effects of a bad environment, not building a good one.

Orphan and Mars 500 Photo Credit: AP Images Elizabeth Smart Image: White House Photographer



[Source: BBC, What Extreme Isolation Does To Your Mind, Breathtakingly Awful, Variation in Neural Development, Mars 500 Guinea Pigs Suffered Insomnia and Lethargy, Space Psychology and Psychiatry, Empire Antarctica, A Year Out Of The Dark, But Still Trapped, Classification of Asthenic Conditions, How Parents Shape a Child's Brain, Psychosocial Issues In Long-Term Space Flight.]