Two months ago, Kathy and I watched the reality television series Alone. The show chronicles a competition among ten wilderness experts who are isolated from each other and all other humans as they attempt to survive in the Canadian Arctic for 100 days. Contestants begin with no food and only 10 basic survival items like a sleeping bag, tarp, axe, saw, flint, nylon line for making snares or a gill net, a bow, and a limited number of arrows. The 100 days extended from late September until the end of December when the contestants would be facing blizzards and temperatures below -40°.

The contestants faced the daunting challenge of securing enough food to stay alive, fending off large predators intent on stealing their food, and quickly building a shelter able to withstand high winds and bitter cold. However, as we watched the eleven episodes, it became apparent that the psychological difficulties were more challenging than the physical demands. Being isolated from direct contact with other humans took its toll. Several contestants “tapped out” early because they could no longer tolerate the isolation. Only one contestant survived the 100 days, a professional Alaskan wilderness guide and hunter who suffered some psychological trauma as a result.

Effects of Isolation
Genesis 2 declares that God created the first man, Adam, before he created the first woman, Eve. Before Eve, Adam enjoyed a paradisiacal garden and animals intent on serving and pleasing him. However, it was not long before God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone,” and proceeded to create Eve.

Now, a team of ten neuroscientists and biologists led by Julia George has published a study demonstrating that acute social isolation alters the neurogenic state of the brain.1 Their study was not the first to demonstrate that social isolation brings on deleterious effects on the health, brain function, epigenetics, and behavior of humans and social animals. However, other studies have tracked prolonged social isolation. In those cases, an individual human or social animal was isolated from other individuals for time periods of several weeks or more.

George’s team sought to determine if even brief isolation periods of 24 hours or less could alter gene expression and DNA methylation in the higher cognitive centers of the brain. For ethical reasons they decided not to do controlled experiments of humans. They cited the studies on prolonged social isolation to argue that certain highly social animals make excellent proxies for human responses to social isolation.2 Thus, they chose to do their experiments on the zebra finch, a highly social songbird.

George’s team took 24 adult female zebra finches that had been together in an aviary. Twelve were removed and placed alone in a sound isolation chamber overnight, then sacrificed so researchers could analyze their forebrain neurogenomic state. The other twelve were removed, immediately sacrificed, and had their forebrain neurogenomic state similarly analyzed.

The team’s analysis showed that even a single overnight isolation brought immediate negative consequences in brain gene activity. Forty genes “showed evidence of differential methylation.”3 They observed the alteration of “hundreds of genes in higher forebrain centers involved in social communication, suppressing expression of gene sets involved in neurotrophic signaling and axon guidance in particular.”4 The gene most negatively impacted was EGR1, the gene extensively used to indicate neural activity associated with learning, memory, and perception of salience (that which stands out from its neighbors). They concluded that the alteration is likely to be general, not limited to zebra finches or rearing environments. Their study shows the potential for lasting structural and functional changes in human brains as the results of short periods of acute social isolation.

Humans and Other Creatures Appear to Be Designed for Community
Questions remaining to be answered include: (1) Are the deleterious consequences permanent? (2) If not permanent, how long do the effects of short-term acute social isolation persist after the individual is returned to a normal social environment? and (3) Do additional deleterious effects on other genes eventually emerge?

In a follow-up experiment the team observed that all the negative consequences they noted in their study disappeared when two zebra finches spent a night together in the sound isolation chamber. Evidently, it was the lack of social engagement, not the change of environment, that brought on the deleterious effects.

The team’s research affirms that indeed “it is not good for the man to be alone.” Social engagement is necessary to maintain optimal physical and mental health. What’s true of songbirds is also true of humans. We need to talk to one another, whether through spoken words, written language, internet channels, or a combination of all three. We also need to be physically present. This principle is taken up in Hebrews 10:25 where Christians are exhorted to not forsake meeting regularly with one another.

Personally, the team’s study has affirmed one of my ministry disciplines. My travels and research often involve periods of isolation. I have made it a point, however, to take time every day to communicate with at least one other human being. I hope you’ll do the same. Rather than merely surviving in isolation, humans seem created to thrive in community.

Check out more from Reasons to Believe @Reasons.org

Endnotes
  1. Julia M. George et al., “Acute Social Isolation Alters Neurogenomic State in Songbird Forebrain,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 117, no. 38 (September 22, 2020): 23311–16, doi:10.1073/pnas.1820841116.
  2. John T. Cacioppo et al., “Loneliness across Phylogeny and a Call for Comparative Studies and Animal Models,” Perspectives on Psychological Science 10, no. 2 (March 2015): 202–12, doi:10.1177/1745691614564876; Angela J. Grippo et al., “Social Isolation Induces Behavioral and Neuroendocrine Disturbances Relevant to Depression in Female and Male Prairie Voles,” Psychoneuroendocrinology 32, nos. 8–10 (September–November 2007): 966–80, doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2007.07.004; Moriel Zelikowsky et al., “The Neuropeptide Tac2 Controls a Distributed Brain State Induced by Chronic Social Isolation Stress,” Cell 173, no. 5 (May 17, 2018): 1265–79, doi:10.1016/j/cell.2018.03.037.
  3. George et al., “Acute Social Isolation,” 23313.
  4. George et al., “Acute Social Isolation,” 23313.

 

About The Author

Dr. Hugh Ross

Reasons to Believe emerged from my passion to research, develop, and proclaim the most powerful new reasons to believe in Christ as Creator, Lord, and Savior and to use those new reasons to reach people for Christ. I also am eager to equip Christians to engage, rather than withdraw from or attack, educated non-Christians. One of the approaches I’ve developed, with the help of my RTB colleagues, is a biblical creation model that is testable, falsifiable, and predictive. I enjoy constructively integrating all 66 books of the Bible with all the science disciplines as a way to discover and apply deeper truths. 1 Peter 3:15–16 sets my ministry goal, "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience." Hugh Ross launched his career at age seven when he went to the library to find out why stars are hot. Physics and astronomy captured his curiosity and never let go. At age seventeen he became the youngest person ever to serve as director of observations for Vancouver's Royal Astronomical Society. With the help of a provincial scholarship and a National Research Council (NRC) of Canada fellowship, he completed his undergraduate degree in physics (University of British Columbia) and graduate degrees in astronomy (University of Toronto). The NRC also sent him to the United States for postdoctoral studies. At Caltech he researched quasi-stellar objects, or "quasars," some of the most distant and ancient objects in the universe. Not all of Hugh's discoveries involved astrophysics. Prompted by curiosity, he studied the world’s religions and "holy books" and found only one book that proved scientifically and historically accurate: the Bible. Hugh started at religious "ground zero" and through scientific and historical reality-testing became convinced that the Bible is truly the Word of God! When he went on to describe for others his journey to faith in Jesus Christ, he was surprised to discover how many people believed or disbelieved without checking the evidence. Hugh's unshakable confidence that God's revelations in Scripture and nature do not, will not, and cannot contradict became his unique message. Wholeheartedly encouraged by family and friends, communicating that message as broadly and clearly as possible became his mission. Thus, in 1986, he founded science-faith think tank Reasons to Believe (RTB). He and his colleagues at RTB keep tabs on the frontiers of research to share with scientists and nonscientists alike the thrilling news of what's being discovered and how it connects with biblical theology. In this realm, he has written many books, including: The Fingerprint of God, The Creator and the Cosmos, Beyond the Cosmos, A Matter of Days, Creation as Science, Why the Universe Is the Way It Is, and More Than a Theory. Between writing books and articles, recording podcasts, and taking interviews, Hugh travels the world challenging students and faculty, churches and professional groups, to consider what they believe and why. He presents a persuasive case for Christianity without applying pressure. Because he treats people's questions and comments with respect, he is in great demand as a speaker and as a talk-radio and television guest. Having grown up amid the splendor of Canada's mountains, wildlife, and waterways, Hugh loves the outdoors. Hiking, trail running, and photography are among his favorite recreational pursuits - in addition to stargazing. Hugh lives in Southern California with his wife, Kathy, and two sons.



Email Sign-up

Sign up for the TWR360 Newsletter

Access updates, news, Biblical teaching and inspirational messages from powerful Christian voices.

Thank you for signing up to receive updates from TWR360.

Required information missing