Social Isolation Experiment at Princeton University, 1958

Human beings may be social animals, but if aliens visited our planet amid the COVID-19 pandemic, they might come to a different conclusion. Around the world, people have been practicing all kinds of safety measures to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus and "flatten the curve." Unfortunately, this has required many decidedly asocial behaviors, like social distancing, isolation, and quarantines. While introverts may be enjoying their time in solitude, there's no denying that the sharp drop in daily social interactions has taken its toll on our collective mental health.

There are some reasons to be grateful, however. We live in a time of a remarkable technology.  While we keep our distance in a physical sense, we have various tools at our fingertips that allow us to stay in touch with family and friends. We have cell phones, social media, FaceTime, Zoom conferencing, and other advanced platforms that closely mimic the rapid exchanges of real, face-to-face conversations. They're not perfect, and problems like "Zoom fatigue" are on the rise. But technology has greatly minimized the mental health impact of what would otherwise be a period of extreme social isolation.

And, let's face it. Things could be worse. At least we're not subjects in a social isolation experiment from the 1950s and '60s. These experiments began as a way to investigate how social isolation could be used as a brainwashing technique. From there, other scientists took an interest in social isolation as it was believed to have strong implications for theories on perception and the etiology of psychological disorders. Most of these experiments took place before ethical guidelines for human research were in place. Therefore, the procedures were at times unreasonably harsh and often involved the complete isolation of individuals for days or weeks at a time.

While many of these experiments were no doubt dangerous and unethical, some were more innocent and led to valuable insights regarding how social isolation affects our perceptions, behaviors, and mental health. These studies underscore the importance of maintaining social relationships, even when it's difficult to do so. Here is a curated list of the most intriguing (or downright unethical) studies on the effects of isolation.

1. The Hallucination Experiment at McGill University

Length of isolation: 3 days

A research subject wears blinders and arm cuffs (1958), similar to ones used in social isolation experiments at McGill University

The first studies of social isolation were performed at McGill University in the early 1950s. At the time, there were rumors that China and Korea had developed brainwashing techniques that succeeded in converting American POWs to communists. Dr. Donald Hebb at McGill University wanted to find out whether such a thing were actually possible under the right conditions. So, the eminent professor, along with three other scientists — Drs. Bexton, Heron, and Scott — began looking into how people responded to social isolation coupled with sensory deprivation. However, while rumors of brainwashing overseas served as the impetus for these experiments, the investigators didn't try to manipulate the beliefs and opinions of their subjects. Instead, they focused broadly on how isolation affected one's cognitive processes. What the investigators actually found caught everyone by surprise.

For the experiment, each subject spent three days alone in a cubicle. They were paid $20 per day. For sensory deprivation, subjects were blindfolded and wore cardboard arm cuffs that began at the elbows and extended past the fingertips. This latter contraption prevented the subjects from touching anything in the cubicle. A pair of earphones and several running fans were also used to dampen their sense of hearing. As expected, the time in isolation temporarily impaired several cognitive functions. It also made the subjects more irritable and prone to erratic, compulsive movements. But the strangest effect of the isolation was the experiencing of vivid imagery and absurd, dream-like hallucinations.

One subject drew this picture to explain the strange feeling of there being two of him during isolation. He couldn't decide if he was A or B.

All the subjects experienced hallucinations in one form or another. Some subjects reported seeing "wallpaper-like" patterns or geometric shapes. Others experienced more elaborate hallucinations like prehistoric animals or little yellow men. One subject saw a procession of marching squirrels with knapsacks slung over their shoulders. The squirrels were moving "purposefully" across a snowy field. Subjects also reported vague feelings of "otherness" or "strangeness" with respect to their bodies. One subject sensed that two of him existed in the cubicle, and he couldn't tell which body actually belonged to him. While the experiment yielded several findings of great interest, it was the hallucinations that piqued the attention of the scientific community. Soon, other laboratories began using isolation as a means to study a range of psychological topics.

2. The Princeton University Experiments

Length of isolation: 4 days

Subject in Princeton experiment receives physical and psychological tests after spending four days alone in complete darkness (1958)

Dr. Hebb's experiments inspired a team of researchers at Princeton University to further examine the consequences of isolation and sensory deprivation. The experiments were led by Dr. Jack Vernon and focused on what could be done to maximize the number of hallucinations. Unexpectedly, when Dr. Vernon and his team began their work, they had trouble getting their subjects to hallucinate. Only a few subjects experienced hallucinations, and the imagery was too simple. The subjects would see elementary shapes and figures, but no intricate dream-like sequences, as reported in the McGill experiments. So, Dr. Vernon used an even stricter protocol. He had each subject stay in the cubicle for 4 days. The room was pitch black and had "relief bottles" and a chemical toilet so the subject didn't have to leave the chamber to use the bathroom. The subjects were also forbidden from exploring the room, singing, or talking to themselves. However, even with these Draconian measures in place, the investigators were unable to produce a fair number of hallucinations.

Apparatuses used in the Princeton experiments. Top left: a moleskin mask with ping-pong balls covering the eyes. Top right: a mask with an illuminated panel on the inside flap. Bottom: a test subject having a drink in bed.

What eventually worked was putting some light in the room and then having participants wear masks instead. The masks weren't exactly opaque, and so they permitted some perception of light — but not much else. One of the masks worn by the subjects was made of moleskin with two ping-pong balls covering the eyes. Another mask had an illuminated panel that provided a diffuse layer of blue-green light over the subject's eyes. These changes to the experiment were successful in producing complex hallucinations in more than half of the participants.

The Princeton team discovered some other interesting effects of isolation. For instance, isolation impaired simple motor tasks, like holding a stylus, but enhanced memorization of word lists. Many subjects also experienced feelings of stress, while others faced unusual deficits in their sense of taste. One subject in isolation couldn't tell the difference between beef bouillon and tomato soup, or ham and bologna. Over time, research on social isolation expanded to other colleges and universities, and scientists began to think seriously about how the research could apply to real-world problems —most notably, space travel.

3. NASA Research for Manned Space Flight

Length of isolation: 5 months

NASA test subject spending 5 months in isolation eats meal selected from dispenser (1961)

In the 1950s and '60s, one of the main concerns about the prospect of space travel was the inevitable prolonged periods of confinement and social isolation. After all, voyaging to a distant planet would require months of being cooped up in a small cabin, and the folks at NASA weren't sure how this would affect a person's psyche. So, NASA funded several projects looking into the effects of prolonged isolation. In one of them, Dr. Jack Findley, a psychology professor at the University of Maryland, confined a subject to a tiny 171 sq. ft. chamber for 5 months. The subject was 34-year-old Whilden P. Breen, Jr., a teacher and U.S. army veteran. 

While in isolation, Mr. Breen was treated like a lab rat. He had to press buttons to get food, music, cigarettes, and other pleasantries. However, these opportunities would only be available after he completed other tasks, such as physical exercise, health screenings, and "work tasks." The latter included mundane jobs like looking up words in a dictionary or assembling random electronic devices. Sometimes Dr. Findley would change the rules, and Mr. Breen would have to press a button 500 times before getting a single cigarette. Another game called "Variable Consequence" allowed him to complete work tasks in order to gain a reward that could be very positive (like having a brief conversation with his wife over an intercom) or very negative (like having nothing to eat but banana pellets for 3 days). Mr. Breen was happy to participate in the experiment at the outset. But, after only a few weeks, his patience began to wear thin. He doubted he could make it to 2 months, let alone 5.

Some of Mr. Breen's oil paintings that he made while in isolation.

One of the things that helped Mr. Breen retain his sanity while in isolation was the opportunity to be creative. He was allowed to take up a hobby and chose oil painting. He painted a variety of different pictures, everything from exotic dancers to nuclear explosions. Each day, Mr. Breen also had the opportunity to perform a verbal task of his choosing, and he used this time to work on a science fiction novel. While these activities helped make the experience more tolerable, the prolonged isolation and regimented schedule eventually got to him. He became antagonistic toward the experimenters and frequently insulted them over the intercom. He also grew suspicious of the experimenters' motives and thought they were hiding the true purpose of the experiment from him. The mental strain of isolation became so great he couldn't concentrate on his novel. So, he abandoned it.

After 5 months of isolation, Mr. Breen is reunited with his wife.

In spite of these difficulties, Mr. Breen carried on with the experiment. After 5 months, the study ended, and Mr. Breen returned to his old life. In retrospect, he felt guilty about treating the experimenters poorly and apologized for insulting them. He was also elated to reunite with his wife who upon seeing him said, "He was as handsome as ever." Dr. Findley regarded the experiment as a success. After all, the programmed environment kept the subject in good health, and his work performance never faltered. However, one recommendation Dr. Findley made that could help future astronauts was the inclusion of more than one person in the environment. As for Mr. Breen, the experiment taught him a lot too. "I've decided I like people," he said.

4. The CIA's Mind Control Program

Length of isolation: ??

As noted above, the scientific study of social isolation began in order to examine its potential as a brainwashing technique. After all, it was believed that isolation was one of the strategies that the Chinese government had been using to brainwash American POWs. In response to such reports, the CIA established its own top secret program aimed at mastering the art of mind control. The project, known as MK-Ultra, lasted from about 1953 to 1973 and involved hundreds of experiments performed at colleges, hospitals, prisons, and secret testing facilities. 

There's a lot we don't know about MK-Ultra, because when the program was finally terminated, the director of the CIA mandated the destruction of all records. What we do know comes from the limited documents that survived the purge, as well as the testimonies of CIA officials and others during an investigation by the U.S. Senate in 1977. The investigation revealed the highly unethical and criminal nature of the MK-Ultra experiments. In their quest for complete mind control, researchers recruited prisoners and other vulnerable populations without their consent, and used a variety of cruel and unusual techniques, such as torture, sexual abuse, massive dosing of the hallucinogenic drug LSD, and of course, isolation. At a Kentucky facility, six African-American prisoners were isolated and drugged with LSD for 77 consecutive days. Another victim — a mental patient — was drugged with the hallucinogen for 174 days. Then, in a sub-program called "Operation Third Chance," investigators tested a series of unconscionable interrogation techniques on American soldiers suspected of espionage. As stated in the published Senate report:
Stressing techniques employed included silent treatment before or after EA 1729 [LSD] administration, sustained conventional interrogation prior to EA 1729 interrogation, deprivation of food, drink, sleep or bodily evacuation, sustained isolation prior to EA 1729 administration, hot-cold switches in approach, duress "pitches", verbal degradation and bodily discomfort, or dramatized threats to subject's life or mental health.
Presumably, the MK-Ultra program never reached complete mind control รก la The Manchurian Candidate. However, the techniques were effective for interrogation and, to some extent, brainwashing. The real legacy of MK-Ultra will always be one of shame. The program served as a prime example of how blind ambition in science can turn quickly to absolute wickedness.

5. Genie

Length of Isolation: ~13 years

Genie (1970)

The case of Genie is a sad one. Genie (born: 1957) was a young girl who was mentally and physically abused by her parents for the first 13 years of her life. During this time, she spent every day alone, hidden in a locked room while confined to either a chair or a toilet. When she was finally rescued by Los Angeles welfare authorities in 1970, she was severely malnourished, had only weak language skills, and like other feral children, showed a lack of socialization. 

Genie came under the attention of psychologists who first and foremost wanted to help her, but were also interested in testing several theories of language development. For instance, many researchers believed that children acquired language skills during a specific critical period of development. According to this theory, language acquisition would not be possible once the child surpassed this critical stage. Unfortunately for Genie, this turned out to be true. Even though Genie was able to learn new words under the care of her teachers, she still struggled with grammar and syntax. On the other hand, her capacity for nonverbal communication was intact. She had no problem communicating using gestures, pictures, and sign language.

When Genie turned 18, she moved back with her mom. But, after a few months, Genie's mom realized she couldn't provide adequate care, and so Genie was placed in a series of foster homes over the next 20 or so years. There were reports of foster families abusing and harassing her. As a result, her condition deteriorated, and she became depressed. However, as of 2016, Genie is reportedly doing much better. While her exact location hasn't been disclosed, we do know that she currently lives in a small private institution for adults with intellectual disabilities. Her speech remains severely impaired, but she continues to communicate well using sign language.

The COVID-19 Experiment

Length of isolation: TBD

While the above studies differed in many ways, they all pointed to a single truth: human contact is vitally important. We require some degree of human interaction to stay happy and healthy. In these strange times, many of us have become unwitting subjects of a very different kind of social experiment, testing the effects of prolonged isolation and social distancing on our collective mental health. And, we're still awaiting the results. There's no doubt that such safety measures are needed to flatten the curve and will prevent countless deaths. So, the solution isn't simply to call off stay-at-home orders and reopen businesses (a dangerous decision many states have already made). Instead we need to find a way to maintain our mental health while in isolation. Although we can't socialize in person, we can use cell phones and computers to interact with family and friends. If we have a lot of downtime, we can devote more attention to our hobbies or to learning new skills. There are many ways to keep our mental health in check. However, what works for some may not work for others. We each need to find our own way.

For those of you on the frontlines, we see you, and we appreciate you!