The BBC World Service just broadcast an amazing radio documentary on the experience of isolation – talking to people who have experienced intense remoteness from other humans including polar base residents, astronauts, prisoners and people who completed the Mars-500 simulated mission.
Firstly, it’s just beautiful. If there’s such a thing as an ambient documentary, this comes sublimely close to achieving it at times.
But the programme is also a fascinating look at the subjective psychology of separation.
A doctor explains how it feels to see the last plane leaving an Antarctic research base for nine months of separation from the rest of the world.
A British drug smuggler explains what it was like to be sent to an Argentine prison when he spoke no Spanish – unable to communicate with anyone.
Astronaut Al Worden has been the most isolated human in history, during his time on a Apollo mission, and explains the experience of ultimate remoteness.
The programme reminded me of another form of modern isolation the 21st century hermits who hide themselves away due to fear of the effects of modern technology – like the mythical ‘health damaging effects of WiFi’.
An article in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine made the comparison between these modern day hermits with their ancient brethren.
The World Service documentary is wonderful, however. As is normal with the internet-impaired BBC Radio pages, you have to get the podcast from a completely different page but you’re probably better off downloading the mp3 directly.
Link to BBC World Service documentary Isolation.
mp3 of the same.
4 thoughts on “A tour through isolation”
I am commenting on this before listening to the radio cast, which I don’t have time for right now, just about the definition of isolated.
Just because he can’t use spoken language doesn’t mean he can’t communicate and relate with people. An alien, sure, but isolated, no (he might have felt like an alien there even if he spoke the language). It is more a situation of being a stranger than being isolated.
That was in groups/crews (unless I got something wrong). How can being isolated together with others be regarded isolation, it is just a smaller selection of people to chose from.
I would not necessarily even consider one person isolated who lived remotely out of contact with civilisation isolated if the person had relatable animals to interact with and form bonds with, like people tend to do if they don’t have other humans around (and even if they do).
True isolation would be if you lived alone inside a base surrounded by a hostile, lifeless landscape without any means to contact the rest of human civilisation and no living creatures to interact with.
Agree on the guy in the Spanish prison, to an extent. Although he’s definitely linguistically isolated, which is very significant.
I think it makes sense to talk about people being isolated as part of a group, though. They’ve got no recourse to the wider community or any anonymity etc.
I disagree. Then any pet dog living in a family (apart from multiple-dogs households) is isolated even if it is loved and appreciated, because it doesn’t understand the humans linguistically.
That is not the case though. Dogs communicate and form bonds with humans via body language. That guy in the prison, although he didn’t understand the language spoken around him, still had the ability to interact with others around him socially and emotionally via body language, eyes, face expressions, movement, actions … lots of options. The people around him were even of his own species, so he is in principle having it easier than the dog.
A side note: wouldn’t he gradually pick up the meaning of more and more sounds and learn more and more of the language even if he wasn’t taught? (I would).
Maybe he felt isolated not really mainly for linguistic reasons but because the other prisoners were dangerous bastards that he did not really want to connect with.
Anonymity – you mean inside the group? Yes, that is like in a village – no one can really hide. But what does that have to do with isolation.
Of course “isolation” as a word can be used about a group too, but it is nothing like individual isolation: truly not having the opportunity to communicate with other living beings for a long period of time. That has some quite profound effects that aren’t comparable to any of the examples in the post.
I guess science expeditions / isolation as a group in a remote area is bit like being a group of time travellers: time moves in the outside world while the group is exempted from whatever the news are until they return and the news are already old.
Wow, it really was beautiful. Similar to This American Life but without sending me into a pitch-black depression. W00t!
Many different types of isolation discussed. I can’t imagine any would match a real Mars mission. When’s the last time a human was permanently separated from Earth, sent to a place where the sky is bronze, devoid of greenery, separated from all society? It’s an experiment in human emotion. Not good.