Neil Ansell became a hermit entirely by accident.
Back in the 1980s, he was living in a squat in London with 20 other people. Then someone made him an offer he couldn’t refuse: a cottage in the Welsh mountains, with rent of just £100 ($130) per year. This was a place so wild, the night sky was a continuous carpet of stars – and the neighbours were a pair of ravens, who had lived in the same cedar tree for 20 years.
The catch was that the scenic views came with extreme isolation – by standards achievable in the UK, anyway. He lived on a hill farm inhabited by a single elderly tenant, miles from the nearest village. He didn’t have a phone, and in the five years he lived there, not a single person walked by the house.
“I became so used to being on my own that I recall going to the village shop one day and my voice cracking, as I asked for something at the counter,” he says. “I realised I hadn't spoken in two weeks, not a single word. And that became quite normal for me.”
When you’re alone, you start to lose your sense of who you are
By the time he returned to civilisation, Ansell had fully adapted to being on his own – and the social world was a bit of a shock. “What I found difficult was the amount of talking. I’m not an antisocial person, but I did struggle with that.”
Another thing Ansell noticed was that his identity had gradually started to slip away. “When you’re alone, you start to lose your sense of who you are, because you don't have an image of yourself reflected in the way that other people react to you. So I think to some extent, when I returned I had to rediscover who I could be in a social setting,” he says.
Fast-forward to 2020 and Ansell’s experiences might resonate more widely than they once would have. With lockdowns, shielding and self-isolating, many of us have spent much more time in our own company. How does long-term isolation affect the brain? Do we need social practice? And will we even remember how to socialise when things return to normal?
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Human beings are deeply social creatures. This is abundantly obvious from the way we live, but a key line of evidence is hidden inside our skulls.
It turns out there’s a link between the size of a primate’s brain, and size of the communities it is able to form: the bigger the brain, the greater the extent of its social world. With our generously proportioned organs, humans form the largest groups of any primate, containing an average of 150 individuals. This is “Dunbar’s number” and it turns out that it crops up rather a lot, from the optimal upper limit for a church congregation to the average size of social networks on Twitter. (Read more about how Dunbar’s number shapes our social interactions)
The question of whether social distancing could be affecting our social skills is more tricky to answer (Credit: Yagi/Studio/Getty Images)
One explanation is that socialising is a mental workout. To successfully navigate an interaction with another human being, you need to keep in mind a surprisingly large amount of information – in addition to basic details like where they live and work, it’s helpful to recall the more nuanced features of their existence, such as their friends, rivalries, past indiscretions, social standing, and what motivates them. Many faux pas are down to slip-ups with these basic assumptions, like asking a recently-fired friend about their job, or complaining about children to a soon-to-be-parent.
In the end, the number of relationships we can maintain is limited by the amount of processing power we have available – and over millions of years, species with more social contacts tend to evolve larger their brains. It turns out this link works the other way around, too. In the short term, a lack of socialising can make them shrink.
Those overwintering in Antarctica experienced a spike in social dysfunction during midwinter
Last year, German scientists discovered that the brains of nine polar explorers, who lived in Antarctica for 14 months at a research station, were smaller by the end of the trip. By looking at MRI scans taken before and afterwards, they found that on average, the “dentate gyrus” – a C-shaped region which is mostly involved in the formation of new memories – was diminished by about 7% over the course of the expedition.
Along with the reductions in brain volume, the explorers also performed worse on two tests of intelligence – one for spatial processing, which is the ability to tell where objects are in space, and one for selective attention, which is broadly how well you can focus on a particular object for a period of time.
The scientists speculated that the prolonged social isolation could be to blame, as well as the general monotony of life when you’re confined to a metal box all winter. In this study, they didn’t look at the expeditioners’ social skills before, during and after their isolation, but other research has found that those overwintering in Antarctica experienced a spike in social dysfunction during midwinter, despite the fact that they were rigorously screened beforehand for their ability to cope.
Loneliness vs solitude
The question of whether social distancing could be affecting our social skills is more tricky to answer, but there are some clues.
First up, psychologists aren’t actually concerned with exactly how many people you have access to. Instead, most research focuses on how you view your situation. “Solitude” involves being alone without being lonely – it’s a contented state, similar to the one Ansell achieved in the Welsh wilderness. “Loneliness” is a very different beast, in which a person feels isolated and craves more social contact. (Read more about the difference between loneliness versus solitude).
Neil Ansell spent five years living in complete isolation in rural Wales - but saw that isolation as a positive thing (Credit: Tim Graham/Getty Images)
Research has shown that even when lonely people do have the opportunity to socialise, the feeling warps their perception of what’s going on. Ironically, this means that while it increases their yearning for social contact, it also impairs their ability to interact with others normally.
For example, people who feel isolated tend to have a heightened awareness of social threats – such as saying the wrong thing. They can easily fall into the trap of “confirmation bias”, in which they actively interpret the actions or words of others in a way that supports their negative outlook of their own status or social ability. By having low expectations of others and viewing themselves unfairly, they effectively invite people to treat them badly.
Lonely people must also run the gauntlet of an impaired ability to regulate their own thoughts, feelings and behaviour. This skill is critical to the ability to comply with social norms, and involves constantly analysing and modifying your behaviour in relation to other people’s expectations. Alarmingly, this process is usually automatic – and your capacity for self-regulation can be affected without you even noticing.
In this way, isolation can become a self-fulfilling prophecy known as “the loneliness loop”. It can lead to a toxic combination of low self-esteem, hostility, stress, pessimism and social anxiety – ultimately culminating in the isolated person distancing themselves from others even further. In a worst case scenario, loneliness can make people depressed, and a common symptom of depression is social withdrawal – again, not helpful.
Lonely people must also run the gauntlet of an impaired ability to regulate their own thoughts, feelings and behaviour
Intriguingly, even rats that live on their own also make less appealing social companions for other rats, to the extent that – rather tragically – they’re actively avoided by rats with more contacts. This suggests that there’s something “off” about them, and that shared social experiences are important for bonding in other animals too.
For decades, solitude by choice was seen as more benign. Its benefits have been extolled for far longer by philosophers, religious leaders, indigenous peoples and artists. But there’s mounting evidence that withdrawing from society might have some unintended consequences, even if it’s done on purpose.
Teenagers with a preference for spending time alone tend to be less socially competent, and research has shown that, while some people might think that they prefer solitude, in reality, they enjoy connecting with others, even total strangers. These negative expectations are problematic, because they keep people from learning what actually happens when you interact with people.
So it seems that we do need social practice – but not for the reasons you might think. Regularly interacting with others teaches us to feel valued and helps us to accurately interpret the intentions of others, which helps us to have more positive social experiences.
Research has shown that even when lonely people do socialise, their isolation warps their perspective (Credit: Kenny Williamson/Getty Images)
According to Ty Tashiro, a psychologist and the author of Awkward: The Science of Why We're Socially Awkward and Why That's Awesome, it seems plausible that we are becoming collectively more awkward at the moment. But he’s keen to stress that for most people, any resulting slip-ups are likely to be extremely minor.
“These tiny deviations from what’s socially expected in these situations can create a tremendous amount of embarrassment – and that just shows you how fine-tuned the human mind is to pick up on social expectations, and then assess whether we're meeting them,” says Tashiro.
Socially awkward children
As for those who are still developing their skills, the more exposure you have, the better you’ll get.
“Kids and teenagers do need to have face-to-face interactions,” says Tashiro. “Because they have to learn about the abundance of social cues and expectations that happen when you're in a real-life situation.” He explains that this is even more important for people who are naturally predisposed to be awkward, including himself.
“When I was in middle school, going into high school, I felt kind of bad about my social skills. And one of the realisations I had was that we're just a little slower to pick up these things. I wasn't very intuitive, but that was okay.” To compensate, Tashiro made more of a conscious effort to be socially aware, and spent time practising.
This is backed up by an abundance of research, including studies into the effects of extreme isolation in other animals, which suggests that social experience is particularly important when the brain is still developing.
Kids and teenagers do need to have face-to-face interactions – Ty Tashiro
When rats are raised alone, their brains develop to be smaller and their behaviour is so altered that they’re often used as an animal model for schizophrenia, in which one of the key symptoms is impaired social functioning. Meanwhile ants which are isolated from birth have smaller brains and behave differently to their peers, while social fish are less cooperative when they are reared in isolation.
When scientists compared the behaviour of ex-laboratory chimpanzees who had been deprived of social contact either early or late in life, they found that those who had been alone from a younger age were less tolerant of invasions of their personal space, less likely to groom other members of the group (an important method of bonding), had less social initiative, and tended to form smaller networks of contacts.
In human children, studies have found a direct link between the amount of social practice they get and their social skills. In one group of Portuguese pre-schoolers, those who increased their social engagement experienced a corresponding boost to their social abilities, while participating in afterschool activities has been repeatedly shown to help – even sport. Meanwhile, children who have more siblings tend to be more adept at navigating the social world, and as with adults, children who spend more time alone are more susceptible to interpreting social situations in self-defeating ways.
People who feel isolated tend to have a heightened awareness of social threats (Credit: Cuppyuppycake/Getty Images)
And where better for children to find companions to practise on than at school. Even before the pandemic, a surprisingly large number of children around the world were not educated this way; as of 2012, there were 1.8 million home-schooled children in the US. But now some experts have predicted that we’re on the cusp of a revolution, with remote learning poised to replace more and more face-to-face interactions with teachers.
There has been concern about the risks of a home-based education for years, and it’s been banned in Germany since 1919, on the grounds that school provides a training ground for social tolerance. However, this view is controversial – and while there’s some evidence that home-schooled children are less socially competent, as adults they tend to be more civically engaged than those who were not.
But while there are well-documented drawbacks to social isolation, the good news is that it’s not all bad.
For one thing, Tashiro thinks it’s important to embrace a bit of social awkwardness – anecdotally, he’s heard from the partners of people who are shy or socially anxious that they make excellent companions, because they have to think more carefully about why someone might be feeling a certain way, or the best way to respond in different situations. “That thoughtfulness actually becomes really endearing,” he says.
Ansell, on the hand, is keen to stress how positive he found his experiences with solitude, and the importance of adopting the right attitude. “I think that people struggle, very often, because they don't do it for long enough,” he says. He saw the opportunity to live alone in the Welsh mountains as a challenge, to see how self-sufficient he could be.
I had no fixed ending to what I was doing – I just immersed myself in it as fully as I could – Neil Ansell
The test wasn’t just about being alone. Ansell had no running water, no electricity, no vehicle, no phone, and he grew most of his own food or foraged for it. “But what soon happened was that it no longer felt like a challenge,” he says. “It just felt like me living my life, it began to feel like my normal state of being.”
Crucially, Ansell had no idea how long his solitude would last. “I think when people go off on retreats and things like that, they've always got their eye on the end – the time that they'll be going back to ‘normal’,” he says. “But because what I was doing was unplanned, and I had no fixed ending to what I was doing. I just immersed myself in it as fully as I could.”
Even today, having written three books – the most recent, The Circling Sky: On Nature and Belonging in an Ancient Forest is out in 2021 – Ansell says he continues to benefit from his five years of solitude. In the end, he knows that if everything goes wrong and he ends up alone, in a crumbling cottage in the middle of nowhere – well, things could be worse.
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