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Being alone can be very beneficial. But even introverts have their limits.

This is what solitude does to your brain

Leestijd: 4 minuten |

Solitude is something I have always had a great appreciation for. I love being on my own. As an introvert, I definitely need my alone-time to come back to myself and recharge. I have a friend who is the exact opposite; she absolutely hates being alone and prefers being surrounded by people. It won’t surprise you when I tell you she’s a classic extrovert. When the pandemic hit and the first lockdown came, I realized I my friend was going to have a hard time with the social isolation. Me, on the other hand, got to do what I was really good at. But what makes one person crave solitude, while the other person fears it so much? What exactly goes on in our brains when we are alone? And is there such a thing as too much solitude?

What happens in your brain during solitude

In the late 1990s, there was a study at Washington University where they were looking at what parts of the brain were involved in various tasks. They found that there are multiple areas that actually get extremely active when there are no external tasks or distractions that you have to deal with. They were all parts that focus on so-called self-referential processes, such as remembering personal memories (remember why humans are always time travelling?), processing emotions and evaluating incoming data. All these areas that seemed to be working in tandem during solitude. The researchers named them the ‘default mode network’. When there are virtually no external distractions and we allow our thoughts to wonder, the ‘default mode network’ starts working at full capacity. Apparently, this plays a vital role in the realization of self, or forming a sense of identity. It also frees the mind of something that science calls the ‘spotlight effect’. When we’re in a public place, us humans have a tendency to overestimate the extent to which others notice our accomplishments and mistakes – as soon as we are alone, our brains can stop imagining that our behaviour is on full display. Another study on the benefits of solitude from 2003, clarified this with the example of being in a museum: “As one’s experience of viewing a painting in a museum changes when another person walks up, our subjective experience is influenced by the slightest interaction with another person.” (…) “We become conscious not only of the object we are viewing but also of ourselves as viewers.”

Being comfortable in solitude

I consider the relationship I have with myself as my primary relationship, so being comfortable in my own solitude is important to me. I also feel that when I get adequate alone-time, I am more present when I am in the company of others. It enables me to give them my full attention, instead of constantly having to withdraw because I get overwhelmed by their emotions. Yes, being a hypersensitive empath is challenging, but ensuring I have enough alone-time actually makes me better company, a better listener, a better friend. I’m sure many introverts will recognize themselves in this. Various studies have shown that sufficient solitude helps us tune in to ourselves, get more creative and live a more mindful life. However, too much solitude can be damaging. Humans are social creatures. We can value our alone-time, but we still need to connect with others, both emotionally and physically.

Craving human connections

I remember when that first lockdown started. My extrovert friend is a tattoo artist, so when the government shut everything down, she couldn’t work. She felt like she was going crazy. For me personally, it was no problem. I was “good at socially distancing.” Of course, I missed my friends and my family, but I think I was doing better than most people. I had no problems staying in. I work from home most days anyway, so it wasn’t like there was a lot that was changing for me. Over the course of those first two years, we went back in and out of lockdowns, some more severe than others. Then, in December 2021, just when it seemed like the situation was getting under control, omicron happened and the government issued the fourth lockdown. It hit me hard. Completely unexpected. For days, I sat at home and wondered why. The other lockdowns had been pretty much smooth sailing for me. Why did this one make me feel so incredibly sad and frustrated? It’s pretty simple, actually. It had been too long.

The dangers of extended isolation

There was a study where people were left alone for 6 to 15 minutes with no distractions, except for a device that administered electric shocks. The researchers were surprised when they saw that nearly 70 percent of men and 25 percent of women chose to shock themselves. In another version of the study, participants were told to go home and sit alone with their thoughts for a period of 10 to 15 minutes, without any distractions. More than half of the participants confessed to cheating; they would get up from the chair and start walking around turn on music, or distract themselves with their phones. This is natural behaviour. A 2000 study found that prisoners in solitary confinement are subject to extreme levels of stress, which causes them to develop psychiatric disorders significantly faster than other prisoners. Too much solitude can cause humans to actually lose their minds.   

Final thoughts

It basically comes down to this: even people who thrive on solitude, cannot be alone for extended periods of time. Introverts, extroverts and everyone in between, we all need social interaction. An introvert can probably go longer without it, but extended isolation will eventually drive everyone crazy. The aforementioned scientific studies only confirm what we already know: that it is, in fact, possible to have too much of a good thing.

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