Isolation-The Ultimate Poison
excerpted from Howard Bloom’s
The Lucifer Principle
A Scientific Expedition Into The Forces of History
Isolation: The Ultimate Poison
Remove the sponge cell from the sponge, prevent it from finding its way back to its brethren, and it dies. Scrape a liver cell from the liver and in its isolation it too will shrivel and give up life. But what happens if you remove a human from his social bonds, wrenching him from the superorganism of which he or she is a part?
In the 1940′s, the psychologist Rene Spitz studied human babies isolated from their mothers. These were the infants of women too poor to care for their children, infants who had been placed permanently in a foundling home. There, the children were kept in what Spitz called “solitary confinement,” placed in cribs with sheets hung from the sides so that the only thing the babies could see was the ceiling. Nurses seldom looked in on them more than a few times a day. And even when feeding time came, the babies were left alone with just the companionship of a bottle. Hygiene in the homes was impeccable. But without being held, loved, and woven into the fabric of a social web, the resistance of these babies was lowered. Thirty four out of 91 died. In other foundling homes, the death rate was even higher. In some, it climbed to a devastating 90%. A host of other studies have shown the same thing. Babies can be given food, shelter, warmth and hygiene. But if they are not held and stroked, they have an abnormal tendency to die.
Two means have been discovered to produce depression in laboratory animals: uncontrollable punishment and isolation. Put an animal in a cage by himself, separated from his nestmates, and he will lose interest in food and sex, have trouble sleeping, and undergo a muddling of the brain.
Tampering with bonds to the larger social organism can have powerful consequences. In humans, feeling you’re unwanted can stunt your growth. The flow of growth hormones, according to recent research, is affected strongly by “psychosocial factors.” Monkeys taken away from their families and friends experience blockage of the arteries and heart disease. On the other hand, rabbits who are petted and hugged live 60% longer.
When their mates die, male hamsters stop eating and sleeping, and often succumb to death themselves. They are not alone. A British study indicated that in the first year after a wife dies, a widower has a 40% greater risk of death. In another study at New York’s Mount Sinai School of Medicine, men who had lost wives to breast cancer experienced a sharp drop in the activity of their immune system one to two months after the loss. A survey of 7,000 inhabitants of Alameda County, California, showed that “isolation and the lack of social and community ties” opened the door to illness and an early demise.
An even broader investigation by James J. Lynch of actuarial and statistical data on victims of cardiovascular disease indicated that an astonishing percentage of the million or so Americans killed by heart problems each year have an underlying difficulty that seems to trigger their sickness: “lack of warmth and meaningful relationships with others.” On the other hand, research in Europe suggested that kissing on a regular basis provides additional oxygen and stimulates the output of antibodies.
Closeness to others can heal. Separation can kill.
The cutting of the ties that bind can be fatal even in the wild. Jane Goodall, the researcher who has studied chimpanzees in the Gombe game preserve of Africa since 1960, saw the principle at work in a young animal named Flint. When Flint was born, his mother adored him. And he, in turn, doted on her. She hugged him, played with him, and tickled him until his tiny, wrinkled face broke out in the broad equivalent of a chimpanzee smile. The two were inseparable.
When Flint reached the age of three, however, the time came for his mother to wean him. But Flo, the mother, was old and weak. And Flint, the chimpanzee child, was young and strong. Flo turned her back and tried to keep her son away from the nipple. But Flint flew into wild tantrums, lashed about violently on the ground, and ran off screaming. Finally, a worried Flo was forced to calm her son by offering him her breast. Later, Flint developed even more aggressive techniques for ensuring his supply of mother’s milk. If Flo tried to shrug him off, Flint struck her with his fists, and punctuated the pummeling with sharp bites.
At an age when other chimps have freed themselves from parental apron strings, Flint was still acting like a baby. Though he was a strapping young lad, and his mother was increasingly feeble, Flint insisted that his mama carry him everywhere. If Flo stopped to rest and Flint was anxious to taste the fruit of the trees at their next destination, the hulking child would push, prod and whimper to get his mom moving again. Then he’d climb on her back and enjoy the ride. When shoves and whines didn’t motivate his mother to pick him up and cart him where he wanted to go, Flint would occasionally give the exhausted lady a strong kick. At night, Flint was old enough to build a sleeping nest of his own. Instead, he insisted on climbing into bed with his mommy.
Flint should have turned his attention from Flo to the other chimps his age, forging ties to the superorganism–the chimpanzee tribe–of which he was a part. But he did not. The consequence would be devastating.
Flint’s mother died. Theoretically, Flint’s instincts should have urged him to survive. But three weeks later, he went back to the spot where his mother had breathed her last and curled up in a fetal ball. Within a few days, he too was dead.
An autopsy revealed that there was nothing physically wrong with Flint: no infection, no disease, no handicap. In all probability, the youngster’s death had been caused by the simian equivalent of that voice which tells humans going through a similar loss that there’s nothing left to live for. Flint had been cut loose from his single bond to the superorganism. That separation had killed him.
Social attachment is just as vital to human beings. Research psychiatrist Dr. George Engel collected 275 newspaper accounts of sudden death. He discovered that 156 had been caused by severe damage to social ties. One hundred and thirty five deaths had been triggered by “a traumatic event in a close human relationship.” Another 21 had been brought on by “loss of sta- tus, humiliation, failure or defeat.” In one instance, the president of a college had been forced to retire by the Board of Trustees at the age of 59. As he delivered his final speech, he collapsed with a heart attack. One of his closest friends, a doctor, rushed to the stage to save him. But the strain of losing his companion was too much for the physician. He, too, fell to the floor of the platform and died of heart failure.
Our need for each other is not only built into the foundation of our biological structure, it is also the cornerstone of our psyche. Humans are so uncontrollably social that when we’re wandering around at home where no one can see us, we talk to ourselves. When we smash our thumb with a hammer we curse to no one in particular. In a universe whose heavens seem devoid of living matter, we address ourselves skyward to gods, angels and the occasional extra-terrestrial.
Our need for other people shapes even the minor details of our lives. In the early 1980s, a group of architects decided to study the use of public spaces outside modern office buildings. For over twenty years, architects had assumed that people long for moments of quiet contemplation, walled off from the bustle of the world. As a consequence, they had planned their buildings with solitary courtyards separated from the street. What the architects discovered, to their astonishment, was that people shunned their secluded spots. Instead, they parked themselves on low walls and steps near the packed sidewalks. Humans, it seemed, had an inordinate desire to gawk at others of their kind.
Even mere distortions in the bonds of social connectedness can affect health. According to a study by J. Stephen Heisel of the Charles River Hospital in Boston, the activity of natural killer cells–the body’s defenders from disease–is low for people who, on the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Test, demonstrate depression, social withdrawal, guilt, low self esteem, pessimism and maladjustment. Those who withdraw have pulled away from the embrace of their fellows. Those with guilt are certain that their sins have marked them for social rejection. The maladjusted have failed to mesh with those around them. And those with low self-esteem are convinced that others have good reason to shun them. In the study, low natural killer cell activity wasn’t linked to use of medication, alcohol, marijuana or recent medical treatment–just to measures of impaired social connection.
Meyer Friedman, the doctor who delineated the Type A and Type B personality and its relationship to heart disease, says, “If you don’t think what you do is very important, and if you feel that if you died, nobody’s going to mourn, you’re asking for illness.”
Even the well-being of the men we would imagine to be most invulnerable to social forces depends on the sense that the superorganism needs them. When President Dwight Eisenhower had his heart attack on September 24, 1955, mail came in by the sackful from all over the world. Ike said, “It really does something for you to know that people all over the world are praying for you.” Eisenhower’s doctor sensed that the president’s position in the social network could heal him. He insisted that Ike’s aides continue to discuss business with the recuperating president, making him feel he was still important. Eventually, Ike went to Camp David for five weeks of rest. It was the worst thing he could have done. Stripped of his sense of social purpose, he went into severe depression. It was the first setback Eisenhower had experienced since his heart attack. The ailing chief executive eventually recovered…when he was allowed to go back to work.
Finding himself necessary to the social organism had a similar impact on another warrior–Colonel T.E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia. In the Middle East, Lawrence had been a dashing, energetic figure. He had dressed as an Arab, and worked hard to win the respect of tribal leaders. He had taught himself to jump nine feet onto the back of a camel, something few Arabs could accomplish. He had steeled himself to ride across the desert for days without food. He had stretched his limits until he’d gained an endurance far beyond that of the average desert dweller, and he was admired greatly for it.
At the same time, Lawrence convinced the British that he could successfully mobilize the Arab nomads into a unified fighting force. With that force, Lawrence argued, he could help defeat the Germans and Turks in the First World War. The success of his argument boosted his power. When he rode into a circle of bedouin tents, his camels frequently carried several million dollars worth of gold–a gift to cement his negotiations with the desert chieftains.
Using bribery and the force of his personal reputation, Lawrence drew together the widely-scattered Arab tribes to storm Akaba. His force took the city despite seemingly impossible odds, defeating a small Turkish army in the process. After riding the desert for days, and leading the charge in two suc- cessful battles, Lawrence was totally exhausted. Yet when he realized his troops in Akaba were starving, he mounted his camel and rode three days and three nights, covering 250 miles, eating and drinking on his camel’s back, to reach the Gulf of Suez and summon help from a British ship.
The sense that he was critical to the success of the social organism had given the young British officer an almost unbelievable physical endurance. When at last the war was over, Lawrence rode into the city of Damascus in a Rolls Royce as one of the conquerors of the massive Turkish Empire.
But once the fighting ended and Lawrence was forced to pack his Arab robes away and return to England, he felt totally out of place. True, he had friends in high places–Winston Churchill and George Bernard Shaw, among others. But he felt wrenched from the social body into which he had welded himself. He was bereft of purpose–unneeded by the larger social beast. Lawrence went back to live in his parents’ home. His mother said that the former war hero would come down to breakfast in the morning, and would still remain sitting at the table by lunchtime, staring vacantly at the same object that had occupied his gaze hours earlier, unmoving, unmotivated.
Eventually, at the age of 47, Lawrence died on a lonely country road, victim of a motorcycle accident. Or was he really the victim of something far more subtle?
Not long before his death, Lawrence wrote to Eric Kennington, “You wonder what I am doing? Well, so do I, in truth. Days seem to dawn, suns to shine, evenings to follow, and then I sleep. What I have done, what I am doing, what I am going to do, puzzle me and bewilder me. Have you ever been a leaf and fallen from your tree in autumn and been really puzzled about it? That’s the feeling.” Experts on suicide explain that vehicular accidents often occur to those who are depressed and courting death. Was it mere chance, then, that T.E. Lawrence, a man of almost superhuman physical skills, was killed by a bit of sloppy driving on a vehicle he had used for years? Or had the former leader of the Arabs’ inner calculators come to the conclusion that, like the un-needed cell in a complex organism, it was time for him to simply slip away?