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On solitary

First posted at 16:49GMT on 01/05/09 by katebagley


“Human beings are social creatures. We are social not just in the trivial sense that we like company, and not just in the obvious sense that we each depend on others. We are social in a more elemental way: simply to exist as a normal human being requires interaction with other people.”

So opens Atul Gawande’s recent article in the New Yorker, an exploration of social isolation in relation to the tens of thousands of US prisoners currently held in solitary confinement.  The article goes on to explore the effect of social isolation on the human beings and their brains. Many of the stories resonate with what we heard and saw working with socially isolated older people living in Westminster during the Meetup project.  Here are a few choice snippets from a fascinating article…

A U.S. military study of almost a hundred and fifty naval aviators returned from imprisonment in Vietnam, many of whom were treated even worse than McCain, reported that they found social isolation to be as torturous and agonizing as any physical abuse they suffered.

In 1992, fifty-seven prisoners of war, released after an average of six months in detention camps in the former Yugoslavia, were examined using EEG-like tests. The recordings revealed brain abnormalities months afterward; the most severe were found in prisoners who had endured either head trauma sufficient to render them unconscious or, yes, solitary confinement. Without sustained social interaction, the human brain may become as impaired as one that has incurred a traumatic injury.

According to the Navy P.O.W. researchers, the instinct to fight back against the enemy constituted the most important coping mechanism for the prisoners they studied. Resistance was often their sole means of maintaining a sense of purpose, and so their sanity. Yet resistance is precisely what we wish to destroy in our supermax prisoners.

Read the full article here in the New Yorker

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