Deccan Chronicle

The joy and agony of being alone

Deccan Chronicle.| Vikram Sharma

Published on: May 1, 2023 | Updated on: May 1, 2023

Silence and isolation can have two sides as experts and people who have gone through the experience tell us

Spanish mountaineer and extreme athlete Beatriz Flamini recently emerged from a 500-day challenge, living 70 meters (230 feet) deep in a cave outside Granada with no contact with the outside world.

Spanish mountaineer and extreme athlete Beatriz Flamini recently emerged from a 500-day challenge, living 70 meters (230 feet) deep in a cave outside Granada with no contact with the outside world.

Most people value silence – some enjoy it once in a while, others like it for longer periods, maybe for a few hours, or even a few days. But what if a person goes into social isolation for years? What does minimal or no human contact for longer periods do to human minds?

Spanish mountaineer and extreme athlete Beatriz Flamini recently emerged from a 500-day challenge, living 70 meters (230 feet) deep in a cave outside Granada with no contact with the outside world. She said she had focused on retaining ‘coherence’, eating well and relishing the silence, and did not want to come out. After 65 days of social isolation, she lost perception of time. She spent her time underground doing exercises, painting and drawing and knitting woolly hats. 

Take the case of Mauro Morandi, an Italian who spent almost 33 years living on Sardinian Island of Budelli with just some cats and wild birds for company. He had no human friends on the island for three decades.

importance of being social

Humans are social animals. Socialising has helped humans from an evolutionary standpoint. The way to survive in the cavemen era was to flock together and look out for each other. By living in groups or communities the chances of survival increased for humans. 

"From a biological point of view, social interaction and connection trigger the release of hormones such as oxytocin and endorphins, which promote feelings of well-being and happiness and make us feel connected to others via social bonding. The need for social interaction and relationships with others is deeply ingrained in human nature and essential for physical, emotional, and psychological well-being," explains Dr Era Dutta, Consultant Psychiatrist, TEDx Speaker, and Founder, Mind Wellness.

She feels isolation in just the right amounts, especially for short periods, can be truly beneficial for us as humans.  


1. Re-channelling energy: In certain circumstances, isolation can be beneficial, e.g. when you need to dig deep and sustain your focus on a task at hand.

2. Improved concentration: Lack of external distraction can boost concentration. Boredom and lack of stimulation are known to breed new ideas.

3. Increased self-awareness: Having time and space to reflect on thoughts and feelings can be beneficial for personal growth and self-awareness.

4. Reduced stress: Some people find it therapeutic to be by themselves with only their thoughts for company. They also find space to engage in more self-care.

5. Increased sense of independence: Being alone encourages self-reliance.

6. Improved relationship with self and others.

The flip side of isolation

Prolonged isolation can cause multitudes of emotional, physical and mental issues. "Some individuals have a strong fear of being alone, known as autophobia. It can also include a fear of abandonment or of being disconnected from others," explains Dr Dutta. 

"The COVID-19 pandemic has provided a real-world example of the effects of social isolation on humans. Studies have shown that the pandemic and resulting social isolation led to increased levels of anxiety, and other mental health disorders," she says.  

In an experiment named ‘Rat Park Study’ conducted by Canadian psychologist Bruce K. Alexander in the 1970s, rats were placed in either isolated cages or a more social environment called ‘Rat Park’, which included other rats, toys, and opportunities for social interaction. In the former case, rats were more prone to self-administering addictive drugs such as morphine and cocaine than the more social rats in the park. "Prolonged isolation can cause one to feel sad, lonely, and disconnected and even precipitate depression and anxiety. Exposure to new experiences, people, and ideas is important for personal growth and development," adds Dr Dutta. 

In the movie Cast Away (2000) Tom Hanks crash-lands on a deserted island and faces physical and social isolation. He even resorts to naming the volleyball he uses as Wilson, and holds conversations with it to reduce loneliness.

Ultra cyclist and marathoner Dr Amit Samarth, for whom taking on extreme challenges is a way of life, says social isolation can help the person to work on himself or his hobbies. "Isolation can help the person to concentrate on one particular task or some particular art for days and years together and can create a genius out of him," he feels.

Dr Samarth, who has done Race Across America, among other ultra cycling events, says after undertaking solo long races, it gets difficult to come back to normal life. "It takes time to normalise and come back to day-to-day living. But as humans, we need our family, friends and community to live a happy healthy long life," he adds.

Mountaineer and travel enthusiast Raman Chander Sood feels the biggest challenge which one faces while living in complete isolation for long periods, is to maintain sanity. "A person has to be mentally very strong to keep his/her senses intact when there is no human contact and a sense of time for a very long period," he says. Asked if he too likes to go into isolation for long periods, the 70-year-old mountaineer, who has scaled the world’s highest peaks, says he likes to be completely isolated for a few hours in a day. "It gives me time for introspection, to focus on my goals etc. However, living in absolute isolation for very long duration running into years is a very challenging task," he says.

Another mountaineer, Anurag Nallavelli, says it’s all about the mindset. "But it depends on what your end/long-term goal is and what one is trying to achieve. It can be lifestyle, or working through some difficult phases of life and learning/working on the person’s growth," he feels.

The hardest thing in life is to spend time alone, says Anurag. "One will only realize one’s will power and strength when one spends some time alone and looks at the inner self. You need to go inside in order to understand oneself," he adds.

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