The Fascination With Isolation

In real-life experiments, mental collapse comes quickly.

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In 2004, when Andrew Golder and Lincoln Hiatt first proposed Solitary, a reality TV show about solitary confinement, they were met with the sort of polite humoring one might reserve for a delusional person. “The basic response,” Golder recalls, “was ‘No, that’s too crazy.'”

Indeed, the initial idea was a far cry from the show they ultimately produced, in which an omniscient computer-voiced host named Val prods isolated contestants through a series of mental and physical challenges. In the beginning, Golder and Hiatt had wanted to put contestants in underground cells—with no books, music, television, phones, or stimulation of any kind—and keep them there until they chose to quit. This was to be true isolation, a purely psychological challenge observed through hidden cameras. Even the producers weren’t convinced it would play. “How do you drive story?” Hiatt asks. And then, what if players managed to hold out for a long time? “We can’t afford to shoot for 365 days and put people in the ground and just sort of let them quit one at a time. We don’t have the budget for it.”

But if the past is any indication, contestants wouldn’t have lasted a month. When the late Donald O. Hebb, a psychologist at Montreal’s McGill University, secured a grant from the Canadian Defence Research Board in 1951 to study how sensory isolation affects the human mind, he found that depriving a person of stimulation can break him in days.

Peter Milner, then Hebb’s graduate student and now a professor emeritus at McGill, was working on another project at the time but remembers seeing the sensory-deprivation rooms and watching subjects in frosted-white goggles being led to the bathroom. His mentor had offered male graduate students $20 a day—excellent pay for the ’50s—to stay in small chambers with little more than a bed. In addition to the goggles, they wore gloves and cardboard tubes over the arms to limit their sense of touch. A U-shaped pillow and the hum of an air conditioner masked outside noises. “According to his theory, the brain would deteriorate if it didn’t have a continuous stream of sensory input,” Milner says.

Despite adequate sleep and meals and bathroom breaks, the majority of the young men lasted no more than a few days in isolation, and none more than a week. “Most of the subjects had planned to think about their work: Some intended to review their studies, some to plan term papers, and one thought he would organize a lecture he had to deliver,” wrote Woodburn Heron, one of Hebb’s collaborators, in “The Pathology of Boredom,” a 1957 Scientific American article describing the experiment. “Nearly all of them reported that the most striking thing about the experience was that they were unable to think clearly about anything for any length of time and that their thought processes seemed to be affected in other ways.”

A series of tests showed that the volunteers’ mental faculties were, in fact, temporarily impaired. The students proved uncharacteristically responsive to arguments that supernatural phenomena, including ghosts and poltergeists, were real. They performed poorly on tests involving simple arithmetic, word associations, and pattern recognition. They also experienced extreme restlessness, childish emotional responses, and vivid hallucinations. “The subjects had little control over the content” of their visions, Heron wrote. “One man could see nothing but dogs, another nothing but eyeglasses of various types, and so on.” Nor were these hallucinations merely visual: One volunteer repeatedly heard a music box playing, another a full choir to accompany his vision of a sun rising over a church. “One,” Heron wrote, “had a feeling of being hit in the arm by pellets fired from a miniature rocket ship he saw; another reaching out to touch a doorknob in his vision felt an electric shock.”

D. Ewen Cameron, head of McGill’s psychiatry department in the 1950s, soon began employing sensory deprivation as part of his “psychic driving” technique, an unsuccessful attempt to reprogram the minds of mentally ill patients, some of whom later filed suit. Milner calls this “torture,” because unlike Hebb’s volunteer subjects, Cameron’s were under his control. “They were sick people,” Milner says. “They came to him because they had a mental illness and his job was to cure them…If they had been day patients they would have not bothered to come back. But because they were hospitalized there wasn’t much the patient could do.

“Hebb thought it was not only stupid, but rather wicked,” Milner adds, “and he was right.”

Although the CIA and other agencies may have appropriated Hebb’s results—some of which the Canadian government forbade him from publishing—for their own purposes, the professor and his collaborators hadn’t set out to perfect an interrogation or torture technique. To the contrary, there was concern at the time that the Soviets were using sensory deprivation to brainwash Canadian POWs in Korea, and the researchers viewed their work as an attempt to understand the technique so that some sort of defense might be devised against it.

It’s unclear exactly when the Agency caught wind of Hebb’s work. But in The Search for the Manchurian Candidate, a 1979 book based on thousands of pages of declassified CIA documents, author John Marks cited a 1955 contact between an Agency operative named Morse Allen and Maitland Baldwin, a neurologist at the National Institutes of Health who had received a master’s degree from McGill in 1951. Baldwin, Marks wrote, had conducted “a rather gruesome experiment in which an Army volunteer had stayed in the ‘box’ for 40 hours until he kicked his way out after, in Baldwin’s words, ‘an hour of crying loudly and sobbing in a most heartrending fashion.’ The experiment convinced Baldwin that the isolation technique could break any man, no matter how intelligent or strong-willed.”

Continued Marks, “After numerous meetings inside the CIA on how and where to fund Baldwin, an Agency medical officer finally shot down the project as being ‘immoral and inhuman,’ suggesting that those pushing the experiments might want to ‘volunteer their heads for use in Dr. Baldwin’s ‘noble project.'”

Whether participation in a particular experiment is voluntary or coerced, of course, makes all the difference when parsing psychological cruelty from reality television. Certainly that’s the view of Solitary coproducer Golder. “What makes torture so difficult is that you are out of control of your situation—a captive.” On his show, he counters, “you control your fate.”

Based on the description of Solitary I provided, Milner agrees with that distinction. “People are torturing themselves when they’re running a race, a marathon or something like that,” he says. “They’re just about dead by the time they’re finished, but they still go on. So I don’t think this is any more torture than any other rather extreme competition.”

In any case, Golder and Hiatt were more interested in how to achieve the best television experience on a limited budget than in any philosophical torture debate. When the Fox Reality Channel showed interest in their original underground crypts idea, the producers concluded that utter isolation simply wasn’t interesting enough to watch. “You can’t have a hero that exists in isolation,” Hiatt says. “You can do that fine in a novel, but you can’t do it on the screen, because your hero needs a dog to talk to. And sometimes literally they give the hero a dog, and the hero walks along and he talks to the dog, or Clint Eastwood talks to the orangutan…That was part of the birth of Val, because they’ve got to talk to somebody.”


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