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Some Thoughts On Loneliness

August 29, 2010

Lately the subject of loneliness has been on my mind.  In one of my past journal entries, I quoted Bertrand Russell saying,

“Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a deep ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair. I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy—ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of life for a few hours of this joy. I have sought it, next, because it relieves loneliness—that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss. I have sought it, finally, because in the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that saints and poets have imagined….”

– Bertrand Russell

Quite naively, I’ve thought of loneliness as a special sort of feeling I was supposed to feel when being by myself, as opposed to when I’m in a social setting.  I’ve never felt any different one way or the other, so I didn’t understand loneliness, nor what it meant.

I think my misunderstanding has stemmed from reading articles like this, from Psychology Today,

Friendship  is a lot like food. We need it to survive. What is more, we seem to have a basic drive for it. Psychologists find that human beings have fundamental need for inclusion in group life and for close relationships. We are truly social animals.

The upshot is, we function best when this social need is met. It is easier to stay motivated, to meet the varied challenges of life.

In fact, evidence has been growing that when our need for social relationships is not met, we fall apart mentally and even physically. There are effects on the brain and on the body. Some effects work subtly, through the exposure of multiple body systems to excess amounts of stress hormones. Yet the effects are distinct enough to be measured over time, so that unmet social needs take a serious toll on health, eroding our arteries, creating high blood pressure, and even undermining learning and memory.

A lack of close friends and a dearth of broader social contact generally bring the emotional discomfort or distress known as loneliness. It begins with an awareness of a deficiency of relationships. This cognitive awareness plays through our brain with an emotional soundtrack. It makes us sad. We might feel an emptiness. We may be filled with a longing for contact. We feel isolated, distanced from others, deprived. These feelings tear away at our emotional well-being.

– Psychology Today, The Dangers Of Loneliness

I don’t agree with that article at all.  My stress and blood pressure are more prone to rise when I’m around people, not when I’m alone.  When I’m alone and not bothered, that’s when I’m at peace.  But isn’t it nice how they word things? The “dangers” of loneliness.  Whatever.  How about the “dangers” of mass psychology?  Individuality is a virtue, until you become too different from the herd.  That’s when they diagnose you as neurotic, and have psychologists tell you you’re in all sorts of danger.

When Bertrand Russell mentions loneliness, he makes it sound as if it’s a feeling of being surrounded by a lifeless, cold-hearted abyss.  That’s when I immediately realized that I’m no stranger to loneliness.

I’ve felt that form of loneliness a lot.  I think we all have.  I came to appreciate love and marriage a lot more when I thought of things in that context.  Being married to someone who understands you and loves you must definitely help out with those feelings of loneliness.

It’s unfortunate for me, however, that I have a disposition that most women aren’t particularly attracted to.  I’m probably far too self-absorbed, vain, and show apathy toward things that matter.  By self-absorbed, I wouldn’t say that’s because I think very highly of myself, but because I tend to live within my thoughts, thinking about things, and am generally less concerned about the trivial day to day events of life.

I have to escape the monotonous boredom of everyday existence.  To do so, I study difficult subjects and try to find answers.  I think about the stars, the physical laws which govern their behavior, the origin of the universe, parallel universes, time travel, proofs for difficult mathematical problems, economics, the history of mankind, international relations, depth psychology, philosophical questions such as morality, indepth processes into how the mind works, and other things.

Take the most recent book I purchased “Spatial Cognition, Spatial Perception: Mapping the Self and Space”.  The book covers five main topics:

1. What do animals know and how do they represent external space?
2. Perception and memory of landmarks: implications for spatial cognition and behavior.
3. Evolutionary perspectives on cognitive capacities in spatial perception and object recognition.
4. Does mapping of the body generate understanding of external space?
5. Comparisons of human and non-human primate spatial cognitive abilities.

It’s a fascinating book.  I haven’t been so excited to get a book in a long time.  When it came in the post, I immediately opened the box and my heart raced.  I pumped my fist and was like, “Yeessss!”

The book goes into great detail about how different animals construct a model of space in their brains.  It really is completely remarkable.  It compares different species, how they navigate the world, and their brains.  It talks about their memory capacity.  It talks about how the progression by which each of their brains evolved over time, and shows the development.  It’s exactly what I’ve been wanting to know for a long long time.

I was recently watching a lecture related to wasps, of all things.  I found it completely fascinating.

Wasps really are mindless creatures, and I don’t think they have free will.  They’re biological robots who follow a very simple set of programming instructions.   Let’s explain their behavior, and I think you’ll be able to see clearly how mechanical they are.

There was one type of wasp (I can’t remember the name), that would go out and gather caterpillars.  We could summarize its life and everything it does with the following few points:

1. Dig a hole in the ground.
2. Lay eggs in that hole.
3. Crawl out of the hole
4. Fly up in the air, do one or two loops around the hole, and find a caterpillar.
5. Sting the caterpillar, kill it, and bring it back to the hole.
6. Crawl down in the hole just to make sure nothing had crawled in during the absence.
7. Crawl back out, grab the caterpillar, and stuff it into the hole.
8. Seal off the hole with a small rock nearby.

After this the young egg would hatch and the baby wasp would feed on the dead caterpillar as it developed in that little burrow.

That’s simple enough.  We’ve all seen wasps.  What’s the big deal?

Well, you can totally screw with that wasp’s mind by doing very simple things.  Wasps mechanically follow that procedure, and can do little else.  For example, grab a few pine cones and wait until it crawls in its hole.  Put the pine cones in some arrangement outside its hole.  When it leaves its burrow to go find a caterpillar, it does its loops to memorize that environment.  After it flies off, remove the pine cones and wait for it to come back.  It’ll come back to the general area but have no idea where its hole is.

Even better is when you leave the pine cones there.  It goes and gets its caterpillar and brings it back.  It lays it just outside its hole and then goes in to check if everything’s ok.  You then snatch the caterpillar and move it two inches to the right or left.

The wasp will then come out of its hole and walk to the location where it left the caterpillar.  Then it seems to say to itself, “Uh oh.  My caterpillar’s gone.”  Then it goes airborn to do its two loops to memorize the surroundings.  As it flies in the air it notices the caterpillar, “Oh, there’s a caterpillar.”  It swoops down, grabs it, and then lays it beside the hole.  It goes into its burrow to check if everything’s ok, and then you move the caterpillar, again.  It comes out of the hole, says, “Uh oh, my caterpillar’s gone”,  flies up in the air, does its loops, notices the caterpillar, grabs it, places it outside its hole, goes back in its hole… You can do this same procedure on the wasp until you’re tired of it.  Scientists have repeated this upwards of 40 times consecutively.

Now why is this so fascinating to me?  I wonder to myself all the time what “free will” is, or if it even exists.  If it does, how developed does the brain have to be before we have a degree of freedom?  Wasps have brains that do all kinds of things, but I don’t think they’re free to make decisions.  They seem awfully robotic to me.

Now imagine a book filled with case studies of how different animals perceive space and the neat experiments that have been done.  Fascinating isn’t it?

To use a simple analogy, I entertain the idea that our brain is kind of like a complex form of a Mach-Zehnder interferometer.  In that experiment, the photon can exist in multiple paths at once.  In the same way, I wonder if maybe our brains can exist in multiple potential states, where the state isn’t determined in various areas, based on some sort of complex arrangement, and that we can shift the electric potential in a certain “direction” (a sort of collapse of a neural quantum wave function).  Physical matter isn’t completely deterministic, and maybe our brain tissues can develop in some complex way in which indeterministic free will is possible.

What I like about this idea is that “free will” is confined to making decisions of a certain types, based on what the physical situation warrants – similar to how the Mach-Zehnder interferometer defines the possible paths for the photon.  This is important because people don’t exercise free will at random.  People could do all sorts of things, but they don’t seem to.  For the most part, they almost all behave like normal human beings.  I think their brains limits which decisions they have to choose from.

There’s a lot of problems with this idea though, which I haven’t been able to solve.  If it’s true, then how does your free will only affect your body, while my free will only affect my own body?  Is there some sort of subtle difference between my brain and yours?  I don’t get that.  I still don’t understand what forms the individual and makes them alive, distinguishing one person from another, or any animal for that matter.

I don’t think it’s a property of the physical matter itself, because the matter which composes us (the physical atoms themselves), changes throughout our lives.  It must have to do with the aggregate forms the atoms take on.  It has to be complicated though because our brains are changing all the time as we learn new things.  Dendritic arms grow connecting different brain cells together.

But free will must also depend on a lot of other factors.  A lot of what we think of as free will in species like ourselves really is likely to be just memory and complex brain functions.  This sort of thing is what the book I just bought is about, which is my passion of research.

For example, think about speech.  When we speak, most of us think we’re controlling our mouths and vocal chords using our free will and speech comes out.  This is far from the case.  If you have brain damage in just the right areas (Broca’s area), even if your vocal chords are fine, you won’t be able to speak or form coherent sentences.  It’s really your brain which is doing all that.  It’s the brain that generates the words to say and somehow links it all together and makes it work.

I don’t think that wasps have memory.  Since it has no memory, trying to think how free will would work in it is very difficult.  How can you make a decision if there’s no buffer space for you to lay out your different options in your mind?  How will you weigh the options if you don’t have an imagination to think out the potential effects?

I guess that was a bit of a digression from loneliness.  But you see, when I look at my own life, I’ve developed habits and ways of thought which relinquish any ties to other human beings.  I spend little if any time developing relationships of any sort with people.  I spend my days reading books like this, and thinking about problems most people rarely if ever concern themselves with.  And the thing is, I don’t feel depressed about it, nor do I feel like I’m lacking things that other people with social lives have.

Because there’s so few people who find the things I study interesting, I’m by necessity confined to being a lonely person.  I don’t see any way around this.  Most people bond together through common interests.  There’s few people interested in the things I’m interested in, other than really great scientists, psychologists, and thinkers.

It’d be really nice if I could sit in the pub reading “Spatial Cognition, Spatial Perception: Mapping the Self and Space”, and have cute girls come up to me saying, “Wow!  I’ve read that book.  It’s fantastic.  Don’t you just love the chapter on ants and the detailed research into how they use the sun to get back to their nest?  I love that stuff.”  I’d instantly fall in love, but that won’t happen, ever.

That’s just a fact I’ve chosen to live with.  I don’t really have any choice in that matter, I don’t think.  I’ve tried living the normal life most people live but I find it intolerably boring.  If people find the things I’m fascinated with boring, that’s just how it is.  I’ve seen videos where Richard Dawkins talks about great scientists he admires as his heroes.  Most all of them were/are just like me – taciturn and preferred isolated study to socializing.  They had great problems on their minds which consumed their thoughts, and they were far less concerned with banal everyday experience.

Though I wouldn’t recommend my lifestyle to most people.  Friends really are a valuable thing when you find them.  They’re a rare and priceless thing.  Treat them well.  I’ve made the mistake of treating people dear to me with far too little respect.  I regret that.

I have a problem with speaking my mind far too freely and I hurt people’s feelings.  It reminds me of a quote I heard from a physics professor,

“People will forgive you for darn well anything, but not for being right.”
– Dr. Schmitt

With most people, having a cordial friendly relationship is more valuable than the truth of the subject matters being discussed.  Everything you’re saying might be complete bullshit and make no sense, but if you’re friendly and everyone’s enjoying themselves, it doesn’t seem to matter.

I actually heard this quote during an astronomy course. Dr. Schmitt related the events of a social gathering, where a man there mistakenly assumed that our planet’s distance from the sun brought about the changing seasons.  Dr. Schmitt was very tempted to correct the man, knowing full well that our tilt about our axis of rotation is the real reason for the seasons, but he didn’t want to be an ass.

I’m the guy who IS an ass (to my own detriment), and is unconscious of the fact that he’s being so.  Completely socially unaware, I go on and on about our 23.5 degree tilt, the winter and summer solstices, and the vernal and autumnal equinoxes.   And as everyone’s staring at me, wondering why I won’t shut up, I pull out a pad of paper and pen and say, “Here, let me draw it all out for you.”  Then as I feel I’ve shown a new truth to my friend, they’re all thinking, “What a douchebag.”

When you spend a lot of time alone, like I do, you don’t understand that there’s complex social dynamics at these sorts of events, where people lose face and look stupid.  Since I have no thought of what other people think of me, I’m totally unaware of these things that other people care a great deal about.

I actually took a huge psychological evaluation here recently, and my results were interesting.  They rated your mindset and way of life by several different categories.  When it came to learning for its own sake, I was 98/100.  My value of education and knowledge was 97/100.  My interpersonal skills and prudence was 3/100.

So yeah, that about explains me.  Completely clueless when it comes to people, especially women.

It’s quite funny really.  I was watching the film Pride & Prejudice, based on Jane Austen’s novel, and there was a moment in the film where this awkward priest was asking the main character, Elizabeth, to marry him.  She replied that there’s no way she could make him happy, and basically that they were a terrible match.   That really was profound to someone as dumb as me.

It’s not that I thought they’d make a good couple.  I could tell that he was a terrible person to be around, and that they were completely incompatible.  That man was incompatible with every woman on Earth.  But here’s where I found myself wondering.  The very thought of marrying someone in order to make you happy was something I don’t think I’ve ever thought of.  That had never crossed my mind.  Never.  My mindset is to be self-sufficient and that you need to make yourself happy.  It’s not someone else’s job to make you happy, nor can they do so.  I thought of marriage as a sort of arrangement where life is better with them than without them, and you sort of rationally weigh being single versus having them.  Even if they don’t add all that much, if it’s a positive gain, why not marry? This is coming from someone with a 3/100 in interpersonal skills, so just keep that in mind.

I went out for a walk that evening and thought to myself, “Marrying someone to make you happy.  Trying to make someone else happy.  What in the world could that possibly involve?”  I walked for an hour and during that time couldn’t even conceive, even in my fantasies, the majority of my happiness coming from a relationship with a woman.  I’m just being honest, even if that makes me look terrible to all you reading this.  I thought to myself, “What if you’re ALREADY happy?  What if you ALREADY have a good life?”  It’s so remote, and I’ve never met a woman even remotely that interesting.  Someone through which I could define the majority of my life, just by the relationship with her.  I can’t picture it.  And if she is that amazing (and she’d have to be one hell of a woman), the likelihood that she’s interested in me, of all people, is next to none.  My odds at a relationship of that sort are so low, I’m probably more likely to win the lottery buying a few lotto tickets at the gas station.

Love and relationships throws me for a complete loop, every time.  I don’t understand it.  I don’t get it.  With my 3/100, what can I expect?  I don’t understand these words that lovers say to one another.  I think that means I only understand what’s going on in around 3 out of every 100 social situations.  “You’re everything to me.  It’s all for you.”  What?  Define “all”?  When I try to understand it, I come to a conclusion that it’s something you feel, not something you think about.  The words are just a means to make known the feelings you have within your heart.  That’s why none of it makes sense.  They’re not meant to be logical.  They’re meant to instill and communicate feelings which I don’t think I’ve ever experienced myself.

Of course, going for a walk in isolation, not talking to anyone other than myself, surely isn’t going to find me the answer to this issue.  🙂

If I marry a woman one day, I’d treat her beautifully.  What I’d value most are long walks outdoors together talking about deep subjects.  Even better would be to work together on intellectual pursuits.  When I was watching Dr. Bronowski’s series The Ascent Of Man, I believe he had his wife help him research the material he was presenting in the series.  That’d be an incredible relationship.  That is so amazing actually that I can barely comprehend being in such a marriage.  That would be beyond wonderful.  I’d marry a woman who wasn’t into everything I study, if she had a pleasant personality.  But I guess having an intellectual partner is my ideal.  I think that’s the only thing I could ever truly fall in love with a woman for.  Her intelligence.  95% of what matters is her intelligence.  4% personality.  1% everything else.

When I think about Bertrand Russell’s definition of loneliness, I feel just as lonely around people than being alone.  The thing is, being alone I can read my books and consume myself in interesting material.  When I’m around most people, I’m forced to endure mindless dribble.  It’s no wonder why I choose to stay home with my books every time.

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