The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him. Mark 1:12-13
I have studied isolation (subjectively and scientifically) for most of my life. I wrote a thesis on it in my undergraduate days and it had bearing on my postgraduate research. Dr John Lilly did pioneering work in the 60s (didn't everyone) with dolphins, isolation tanks and LSD (!), but that's a subject for future elaboration... I have had long affinity with the notion- either through choice, in seeking out more extreme forms of isolation in wilderness settings, or through circumstance thrust upon me. My thesis was concerned with ‘Perceptual deprivation’ and entailed ‘self-isolating’ individuals in a laboratory context but by restricting the sensory input normally available. (The 'self' part of this has ramifications for productivity as will become more apparent further down.) Some interesting effects were observed even in a short space of time (one hour), including various reports hallucinating strange phenomena – be it visual colours, imagery, or sensations associated with movement, vibration, and auditory: white noise became a waterfall that invited swimming in. The brain craves stimulation, and deprived of it, will create it’s own ‘entertainment’. That is an important point to pause and consider, particularly when we think how are we going to occupy ourselves in times of enforced isolation. The brain is an ‘innovation machine’ that can spawn amazing creative achievements.
But it needs guidance. It will spin out of control autonomously if left to its own devices. It needs an operator to be on hand to direct it’s energies, to marshall it’s output and escalate productive use of the weird and wonderful stream of content that might emerge. This requires some discipline of course! Feeding it a stream of mindless entertainment will not do it much good. Overstressing it with too many problems to solve likewise. It will habituate, spin out of control, or become passive and lazy, gluttonous and lethargic. Or, with some ‘guidance’ become a sharp tool, an enthusiastic generator of new ideas, new ways of thinking, energised and excited and desperate to contribute and evolve!
This is the perfect opportunitiy to seize and drive this ‘machine’ down roads untrammelled.
Always thought of writing a novel? Get cracking! (The Stand Part 2??!!)
Fancied learning a musical instrument or become better at one you already play? Youtube can help...
What about getting fit – well prisoners in those movies always seem to come out buff and strong after all those press ups in solitary...!
It is all too easy to respond negatively to circumstance and to take a doom-laden view of things, and become less motivated, or to become depressive, or even to slide into that latter state without being aware you are doing so, by treating the isolation as an excuse for laziness, ‘holiday time’ and to binge watch netflix box sets, or just stop doing stuff productively (assuming work is not all encompassing). That is a bad mistake. Your brain craves stimulation. Not indulgence. Your ‘self’, like a demanding small child who wants what she craves, will cunningly contrive to have the ‘easy life’. But this is a self-defeating spiral into ‘addiction’, further demoralisation, lack of control over positive progress and productivity (Hamilton et al. 2015). Put your ‘self’ to one side, and switch on to task-focused mindset, instilling some discipline into your routine. Your brain does in fact operate exactly on these principles as I have talked extensively about. If you can acknowledge that your ‘self’ is taking over, telling you to sit back, binge watch, just ‘chill out’, or alternatively spiral into negative doom-laden thinking, then this in itself is the cue, the alarm that tells you to take the reins, quiet the mind, and focus on DOING. A time when I was at my lowest ebb, beset with anxiety, depression, utter restlessness and lack of clear direction, I went outside and pulled up some weeds. I went into a mania of tearing out roots, obsessively clearing my patio. Before I knew it it was dark and the patio was like a pristine chess board. I was tired, but all that anxious energy had been channelled into a productive task. I felt ‘better’ and importantly tired enough to sleep.
When you are task focused there is no room for ‘self’. The brain has this clever mechanism for ‘either-or’ being ‘self-centred’ (I.e aware of ‘I’ want this ‘I’ feel that’, what if this or that happens to ‘me’) or absorbed in goal directed (productive) behaviour. And here’s the thing, when the task is accomplished, the self comes back into focus renewed, somewhat more ‘mature’ for having had this focused experienced. And you are that little bit more in control over your ‘self-ish’ tendencies. The brain has become better at marshalling it’s resources, and ‘you’ have a better system in place for managing it moving forward.
This is where the ‘self’ networks of the brain can come into play for creative purposes beyond a ‘simple task’ (Beaty et al., 2014 found an increase in the functional connectivity between areas of prefrontal cortex and the ‘default mode’ suggestive of the link between regions involved in cognitive control and imaginative processes when new ideas are being generated). For what we are trying to achieve here is not so much a mindless zombie like plodding on with a task, but to gain a better sense of control over the brain’s tendency to go off on flights of fancy that pull attention away from doing something productive. Instead, by discipline, by instilling a sense that you can acknowledge and inhibit certain ‘off task’ tendencies (known as ‘mind wandering’), you can now start to manage these components of your cognitive functioning in a more directed fashion. There’s a time and place during task-focused mindset where you can draw on the innovative and imaginative tendency of the ‘self-network’ to come up with new ideas. Don’t repress the child – we don’t live thankfully in times where the kids need to go down the mine and tunnel into ever small spaces adults can’t fit. Let’s use that childish energy, that inventive zest to come up with novel ideas that adults (who are needfully more ‘slavishly’ driven to get the necessary and perhaps mundane elements of the job done) have become less practised at. But again, with direction and guidance, bring this facet ‘online’ when needed....
So to keep this meaningful and practical rather than abstract and navel gazing, I will reiterate. Acknowledge that you have these tendencies towards putting things off, taking the easy path, but that actually the brain will thank you for being stimulated and galvanised. Now is an unprecedented opportunity, make sure you use it systematically. This takes a routine, a discipline. A timetable, a schedule....And a degree of effort. But then so does sit ups. And this in itself can be motivating, enjoyable even! In some of the most trying times in my life when I have been at lowest ebb, I have taken this course. I have routinised my ‘sit ups’. It wasn’t for any goal other than to simply integrate into my longer-term lifestyle. It was something just to ‘get on with’. It passed the time, it made me fitter, it importantly gave me ‘time off’ from the self. And lo and behold, a week later, 6 months later, decades later, there’s that 6 pack! (not quite, but the groundwork was laid). We are in this for the ‘long haul’ after all!
Don’t think on this – oh I will do that tomorrow, next week. No just get it started now, and let the momentum take care of itself. Time will pass, but opportunity is NOW.
A week or so ago I was totally fed up with ‘isolation’ due to circumstance over past months, and what was keeping me going was the thought that the weather will start to improve, the nights longer, and there will be more opportunity to get out and about, travel, indluge in the pursuits that drive me in the great outdoors. Obviously that has all been put on hold for now. Instead I have to see this absurd situation as an opportunity to seize with all the positives and creative avenues that presents –working on my garden, knuckling down to more interior creative pursuits and so on.
To finish, my university studies saw me descend into a claustrophobic stygian darkness deep in the Yorkshire Dales. I followed a waterlogged tunnel into a hill side, like Bilbo into the Orc’s nest (!). I squeezed up a crevice that wedged my body in tight. I turned off my light source (perhaps I gave it to the companions who accompanied me this far before leaving me to my ‘fate’). Some 3-4 hours later my companions (and light) returned. What did I learn from this experience? It was part of a more ambitious aim to spend up to 36 hours alone in darkness floating in an underground pool that never came to pass, and which I suspect could have yielded some significant insights into solitude, isolation. Time lost it’s meaning. Any source of stimulation became amplified (such as dripping calcite formations). My mind quieted. My self retreated. I became one with the surroundings.
Sometimes having one’s immediate boundaries restricted, compressed, can facilitate the focus one needs. That is the way perhaps to view the current situation, to respond to your brain’s desperate craving for focus, for productivity, and renewed perspective on a world that is there for the shaping. Because I am sure we don’t all want to just go back to how things were before....
And whilst this may all seem to be about those who are living alone in confinement, not so. We are all ‘an island’ and subject to isolating thought processes, and as such in the time available for ‘me’ no matter how little that might be given family and work commitments, the same principle applies. By acknowledging and taking control over one’s ‘self’ one can benefit whatever the circumstance, renewing one’s perspective, shoring up resiliene and resolve, and aspiring to be the ‘Hero’ that resides within all of us!
Beatya, R.E., Benedek, M., Wilkins, R.W.,Jauk, E., Fink, A., Silvia, P.J., Hodges, D.A., Koschutnig, K., Neubauer, A.C. (2014). Creativity and the Default Network: A Functional Connectivity Analysis of the Creative Brain at Rest. Neuropsychologia 64
Hamilton, J.P., Farmer, M., Fogelman, P. and Gotlib, I.H. (2015). Depressive Rumination, the Default-Mode Network, and the Dark Matter of Clinical Neuroscience. Biol Psychiatry. 78(4): 224–230.
The science of cognition and perception in context
This is where I elaborate upon brain science relating to cognitive functioning dependent on environmental context.