A recent news story reported on the creation of a room that can mute 99.99% of all sound. It was designed partly to see how humans exposed to the quiet of outer space might react. Not well, it turns out. It is reported that the longest anyone has been able to endure being alone in the room in the dark has been 45 minutes. The reason? Everyone – not just those “genetically prone to psychosis” – starts to hallucinate.
This should illustrate to anyone who is paying attention that the capacity to hallucinate is something all of us possess, and whether or not we do hallucinate at a given time may depend on the nature of the situation we are in.
There’s really a lot of literature about how isolation contributes to the likelihood of hallucination, particularly in people who are severely stressed as well.
Interestingly enough, the mental health system has for many years used “quiet rooms” which isolated people in a non-stimulating enclosed areas as a way of handling people it perceived as being out of control. Ron Bassman, in his autobiographical book “A Fight to Be: A Psychologist’s Experience from Both Sides of the Locked Door” describes vividly the crazy-making effects of such poorly chosen “treatment.” There is more awareness now that this approach is counter-productive and should be avoided, but it is still used in a great many facilities.
People get isolated, not just by “quiet rooms” but also by the medications, which make people less responsive and less capable of social engagement. People get isolated because of mental health stigma, which causes people to not want to be around someone seen as “mentally ill.” And people experiencing mental health challenges often isolate themselves, for various reasons. People even isolate parts of themselves – we call it dissociation, a process that helps while coping with intense trauma but which often leads to problems later, such as, not surprisingly, seeing and hearing things that “aren’t there”.
What would be really helpful in mental health care would be wider recognition of the role of isolation of various kinds in causing “hallucinations.” This would help us recognize some of the ways people’s problems emerge from what happened to them as well as the ways human contact and friendly relationships can play the key role in healing.
And it would also help to note that healing doesn’t have to mean getting rid of all tendency to “hallucinate” or to have a private world that isn’t shared by others. Some degree of isolation, at times, is actually good for people, and so is the ability to have, or to travel to, worlds that aren’t shared by others. But we also need that healthy human bridge to others that helps keep everything in balance. We really can help people learn to have the best of both worlds, in a way that works for them.