The Danger of Isolation On The Human Mind

Corey McComb

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Photo by Karen Jerzyk

By the time of his death in 1917, Edgar Degas was one of the most famous painters who ever lived. Considered a godfather of the Impressionist movement, his work captured a psychological depth that had never been seen before. His painting, The Bellelli Family, is a simple scene of a family mourning a death, yet, the underlying tension and emotional distance between the family members is somehow equally subtle and urgent. One of his most infamous paintings, The Interior, depicts a man blocking the door from a distressed woman in her bedroom.

Degas experimented with different styles and techniques throughout his career, but his penchant for dark shadows, light colors, and tormenting themes remained. It was his haunting portrayals of human isolation that etched his name into history, yet, unfortunately for Degas, his life closely imitated his art.

Degas never had much exposure to loving relationships growing up and wanted to join a monastery when he was young. Most artists of the 19th century believed that marriage softened a man and hindered his work. The painter, Eugène Delacroix — a huge influence on Degas — said that once an artist gets married, “their art is dead! A painter should know no other passion than his work and sacrifice everything to it.”

Degas would take this advice to heart, keeping his friends at a distance, and avoiding romantic relationships. He was known for being equal parts brilliant and cruel and was notorious for flinging criticisms at other artists without warning. It was common practice for artists of that era to sit for portraits for each other. And while Degas painted gorgeous portraits of both peers and rivals, no one in his peer group ever painted Degas. Maybe they didn’t want to be in the same room with him for that long, or maybe they didn’t think the lone genius would be willing. Whatever the reason, it suited Degas. He believed that art and personal relationships were not meant to coexist. “There is love and there is art,” he would say. “And we only have one heart.”

Armed with endless entertainment and on-demand dopamine machines, opting-out of in-person, human-to-human contact is more than optional — it’s addicting.

For millions of years, our earliest human ancestors lived in small tribes of around 50 people, enduring all aspects of life together. All actions, thoughts, and emotions were driven by a singular purpose: Do what’s best for the tribe. It wasn’t a question of morale, but a necessity for survival.

Then everything changed. The first agricultural revolution of 10,000 BC came around and tribes learned to farm. Small groups became large societies. First slowly, then suddenly, people accumulated “personal property” and existed as individuals — two concepts that had never existed before. Most evolutionary biologists agree that it takes at least 25,000 years before genetic adaptations appear in humans. And since it’s only been about 12,000 years since that first, big agricultural shift, humans today have hardly had enough time to update their hardwiring to fit the new world of optional isolation.

In his wonderful book, Tribe, Sabastian Junger details how this ancient shift has affected modern society:

“A person living in a modern city or a suburb can, for the first time in history, go through an entire day — or an entire life — mostly encountering complete strangers. They can be surrounded by others and yet feel deeply and dangerously alone. […] Although happiness is notoriously subjective and difficult to measure, mental illness is not. Numerous cross-culture studies have shown that modern society — despite its nearly miraculous advances in medicine, science, and technology — is afflicted with some of the highest rates of depression, schizophrenia, poor health, anxiety, and chronic loneliness in human history.”

Armed with endless entertainment and on-demand dopamine machines, opting-out of in-person, human-to-human contact is more than optional — it’s addicting. There’s even a joke among millennials that goes, “Getting older is just you and your friends each saying how busy you are and promising to hang out when things slow down, over and over, until you die.”

It takes effort to create and nurture relationships. And since our society celebrates putting our passion above all else, sacrificing social time for work is socially acceptable. The good news is that we don’t actually need hours of coffee dates or dinner parties to scratch our evolutionary itch. Simple acts like holding the door open for a stranger, or making small talk with a cashier, can help combat the consequences of loneliness. It’s the little things, like saying, “Hello, how are you?” or just wearing a smile in public, that sends a signal to our brain that says, “Hey, I’m part of this human race.”

Like many others, I’ve often fantasized about that remote cabin in the woods. The one where I escape from it all, crank out deep work, and avoid the distractions of others. I held this belief, or “story,” close as I dug myself into a hole of disconnect. I pushed off hanging with others in order to write. Instead of spending an hour catching up with an old friend, I’d tell them I needed to “catch up” on my work. I didn’t yet understand that time with other humans was a vital part of doing great work, being creative, and maintaining a sense of flow. And while I still dream of that hidden cabin in the woods, I’ve learned that there’s a thin line between the power of solitude and the pitfalls of loneliness.

Loneliness — whether one actually feels lonely or not — is a subtle dagger. It attacks our body’s ability to self-regulate. And a perpetual lack of human connection can lead to self-soothing vices like drugs and overeating, or conditions like chronic fatigue. It’s true that these coping mechanisms are linked to an array of mental health issues, but they almost all stem from a deep and primal need to care for and be cared for by other human beings.

You can take all the personality tests, read all the horoscopes, and decide where you fall on the scale of introvert and extrovert, but there’s no denying millions of years of evolutionary hardwiring.

In the book, What Makes Sammy Run, one of the characters is fed up with the title character stomping over other people as he reaches the top of Hollywood. He tells him, “Sammy, society isn’t just a bunch of individuals living alongside each other. As a member of society, man is interdependent. Not, independent, Sammy, interdependent. Life is too complex for there to be any truth in the old slogan of every man for himself.”

Life is too complex. And the notion of every man for himself goes against the very fabric of what makes us human. It’s easy to mistake the time we spend with others as a luxury, when the truth is, it’s a necessity. Quality time with other humans goes beyond being a good friend or partner. It keeps us on the right side of biology. It keeps us healthy and human. We cannot maintain a strong connection to ourselves without a connection to others.

And what’s more — it’s not just about us. Forget for a moment the benefits we get when we unplug from ourselves and spend time with others. Part of being human, or a member of the tribe, is holding space for those who desperately need that human to human connection. You never know what that hour of coffee, or long phone call where you just listen, might provide another person. It all comes down to creating the kind of world we want to live in, the kind of world we want to share with each other.

Edgar Degas maintained his public persona of an “old curmudgeon,” as the novelist George Martin called him, but in private, he suffered from growing paranoia and chronic loneliness. “I am so badly formed,” he wrote to one of his few friends, asking, “Is the heart an instrument that rusts if it is not used?” And, “without a heart, can one be an artist?”

Degas never climbed out of the pit of isolation he dug for himself. He never married, never had children. He slowly went blind — adding to his bitterness — and died alone in Paris at the age of 83.

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Best-selling author of 'Productivity Is For Robots' | I sprinkle a dose of humanity into overly-optimized brains with stories on life, business, and what it means to be human. Visit coreymccomb.substack.com to see my best work. Follow me on Twitter @coreymccomb

San Diego, CA
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