What does it really mean for humans to be fully environmentally deprived?

This blog often focuses on environmental enrichment, but what does it mean for humans to truly experience complete environmental deprivation?

A survey of 11 studies came out recently, called "The Challenges of the Disengaged Mind," that asked subjects to do nothing for 6 to 15 minutes. Literally nothing. No books, no laptop, no person to chat with. All they had was a device that would administer an electric shock at a level that was fairly unpleasant. The study found that many subjects chose to shock themselves rather than do nothing for those 15 minutes.

The All Tech Considered article that I originally read was focused on arguing how we’ve all been trained to be way over stimulated by our electronic devices to handle 15 minutes of alone time. I think other studies have shown that, but in this particular study I disagree.

First, the studies in the survey took away ALL distractions, not just technical devices. Other studies have shown that being left alone without anything to do for a long time is pretty unpleasant for us social creatures. Just think of solitary confinement, and how it is considered cruel and unusual punishment by some.

Second, it is unclear based on what I read from the abstract and articles about the survey (I should probably break down and buy access, but meh), how longitudinal this survey of studies is. The only way to argue that we as humans have gotten worse at sitting alone by ourselves over the last twenty years, or since the Internet, or whatever impetus you want to use, as several articles want to do, is to have longitudinal comparisons of before and after said cause. I’ve seen this done with the length of time humans tend to read or focus on a project, and it could be done with solitary confinement or other isolation studies.

In fact, that would be pretty interesting to do a longitudinal survey study of how (and how well) humans cope with isolation or being forced to be alone with their thoughts, and hopefully not in a torturous way. We see this idea of intentional isolation practiced via meditation, which is more the practice of actively ignoring both your environment and your thoughts, and as most people who’ve tried it will tell you, it is HARD!

I’m curious to hear what other people have seen and think about our capabilities to handle "alone time" and whether it has changed over the decades. Leave your thoughts in the comments below.