Humans are hardwired to interact with others, especially during times of stress. On the other hand, when we go through a trying ordeal alone, a lack of emotional support and comradeship can increase our anxiety and hinder our ability to cope.
This message is forcefully driven home in the newly released thriller “Shut In.” Naomi Watts plays a widowed child psychologist who lives in isolation in rural New England with her son, who is comatose and bedridden as the result of an automobile accident. Snowed in and withdrawn from the outside world, Watts’ character descends into a desperate existence. It soon becomes difficult for her to distinguish the phantasms of her imagination from the reality of the creepy goings-on in her apparently haunted house.
“Shut In,” of course, isn’t the first movie to use isolation as a vehicle for madness. The characters played by Jack Nicholson in “The Shining” and Tom Hanks in “Castaway” found themselves in similar predicaments. Although movies like “Shut In” are fictional, the toll on the protagonist’s psyche from being so alone for so long is based on the science of social isolation.
The importance of human connection
Yes, other people can be irritating. But they are also our greatest source of comfort, and an impressive amount of psychological research underscores the importance of human contact.
Rejection by others psychologically wounds us more deeply than almost anything else, and research by neuroscientists reveals that ostracism can lead to feeling actual physical pain. Other studies confirm that loneliness isn’t good for anyone’s health. It increases levels of stress hormones in the body while leading to poor sleep, a compromised immune system and, in the elderly, cognitive decline. The damage that solitary confinement inflicts on the mental health of prison inmates has also been well-documented.
Alone in an unchanging environment, the sensory information available to us and the ways in which we process it can change in unpredictable ways. For example, we normally spend most of our time attending to and processing external stimuli from the physical world around us. However, monotonous stimulation from our surroundings may cause us to turn our attention inward – within ourselves – which most of us have much less experience handling.
This can lead to a profoundly altered state of consciousness. We may begin to question what’s going on in our surroundings; Is that creaking sound upstairs just an old house pushing back against the wind, or is it something more sinister? This ambivalence leaves us frozen in place, wallowing in unease, especially if we’re alone. When we’re uncertain, the first thing we usually do is to look to the reactions of others to figure out what is going on. Without others with whom to share information and reactions, ambiguity becomes very hard to resolve. When this happens, our mind may quickly race to the darkest possible conclusions.