How the mind changes, time expands when there’s no one else around

Solitude is not the same as loneliness.
Solitude is not the same as loneliness.
Image: Reuters/ Stoyan Nenov
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Imagine a life where you never hear another person’s voice. There’s no phone service or internet to interrupt the day with rings, buzzes, and notifications, and no one to talk through difficult problems. To most people, such solitude sounds like misery and loneliness. But for others, living alone—entirely alone, rather than in a private apartment on a busy block—is a lifestyle choice.

This week, the People’s Daily Online (link in Mandarin) reported on a village in China with only one resident. Liu Shengjia, a shepherd in the mountainous Xueshan Commune of Songbai Village, is the only person living in the area for several miles.

Four years ago, he moved into a stranger’s house when a wall in his courtyard collapsed. “It was unoccupied anyway,” he told the People’s Daily. Liu used to have neighbors but, when they moved away in 2006, he stayed behind to look after his ill mother and brother. Since they died, he has remained in the village by himself.

There’s a long history of choosing to live in solitude, often for religious or spiritual reasons. In the Bible, Jesus wandered the desert alone for 40 days, and countless monks, from both eastern and western religions, have chosen an isolated life. Thinkers too, often do their best work alone. One of the most famous solitary figures, 19th century figure Henry David Thoreau, wrote, ”I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude,”

The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who claimed, “I am solitude become man,” believed that isolation was necessary to be truly free, to allow one to become an individual and make conscious choices rather than follow the crowd. “Flee into your solitude! You have lived too closely to the small and the pitiful,” he wrote in Thus Spake Zarathustra.

Roc Sandford, who lives alone on a farm on the Isle of Gometra in Scotland, says he first moved to the island in 1992 in a bid to escape neighbors. The island is certainly remote—to get there, one must take a train from Glasgow to Oban, then a ferry to the Isle of Mull, followed by a bus and a ferry to the Isle of Ulva, and finally an eight-mile walk along a rough hill track to Gometra, which cannot be completed during rough spring tides or when the bridge is lifted. There’s no electricity or heating, and the running water occasionally cuts out. Sandford was the only resident when he first arrived, though there’s now another household on the island.

Sandford first made the journey to Gometra after neighbors in Somerset guilt tripped him when his animals escaped onto their land. “I thought, ‘How can I get a situation where I don’t have neighbors giving me a hard time?’, and I thought an island was the answer,” he says. He was also looking for somewhere he could protect from environmental destruction, and believed this would be easier in the wilderness.

He spends roughly one-third of each year on Gometra, and now has a phone line and spotty mobile coverage, which means he can usually make contact with another person. But when he first arrived, there was no phone line for several months. His only contact was when a friend visited from Ulva, meaning he was completely alone for two weeks at a time. Sandford says he remembers “getting a terrible shock one day” when a “human form” came round the side of his house—a man who turned out to be an engineer to fix the phone.

Though Sandford chose to live alone, he says isolation does create the urge to talk and, after meeting someone after a period of solitude, “it’s very hard for them to get rid of you.”

But there are also benefits. “Time feels much longer,” he says. It seems to slow down, “which is a wonderful feeling.”

“Your senses get heightened, whether you’re reading, writing, looking at the landscape, thinking. It’s a bit of an amplifier. If you’re sad you get much sadder and if you’re happy you get much happier,” adds Sandford. “I suspect you get closer to own mind and personality because you’re not compromising and negotiating with other people.”

Sandford spends his days alone farming, and conducting many of the chores that are usually done by “armies of people” in cities, such as unblocking water pipes, chopping woods, or carrying gas bottles to his cooker. As there’s no artificial light, his body adjusts to a seasonal rhythm and he sleeps a great deal in winter, but goes to bed at midnight and wakes at 5am during the summer. Isolation can be challenging, but Sandford believes everyone should have a period of solitude at some point in their lives.

Though many would struggle to spend more than a few hours alone, Grant Blank, researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute at Oxford University, who has studied how the internet affects loneliness, says many people find isolation can make them a better person.

“Just being alone and isolated doesn’t necessarily mean at all that you’re lonely,” he says. Time alone gives you the chance to meditate and pray, and to focus in a sustained way. Isolation becomes a problem when it’s involuntary, he says, which can create cycles of loneliness and depression that feed on themselves.

Sue Firth, a chartered occupational psychologist, agrees that there are many benefits to isolation. It’s the one opportunity to truly reflect on what you want in life, and to make thoughtful plans for the future. “Relatively short periods of solitude are hugely valuable for everyday people and longer periods are the norm for people who choose it,” she says.

That said, even people who choose lives of isolation often turn to the radio or news articles for companionship. Without any company whatsoever, most people would tend to go “pretty nuts,” adds Firth.

Sandford believes that he could live completely alone “indefinitely,” though he has no plans to do so.

“I’m sure I’d get extremely strange, but I could probably make a very happy life for myself,” he says. “But I’m not sure I’d want to. I was maybe running away from other people a bit when I moved here but, as I get older, I realize how important other people are.”