Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles - Imagine being confined to a 10-by-10-foot room in complete isolation. No timekeeping devices, no phones, no books, nothing to write on, no windows. [dramatic music] ♪ ♪ Psychologists say that fewer than three days in a room like this can lead to brain damage. I will be staying in this room for three days. ♪ ♪ - Clearly, he is on the border of misery. [electronic music] ♪ ♪ - Even in a city surrounded by people, it's possible to feel lonely or bored. Your brain is like a hungry sponge. It's constantly absorbing information. It thrives when stimulated. Between smartphones and books and movies and friends and family, thousands of sensations are constantly going into our heads. But what if it all got cut off? [dramatic music] ♪ ♪ What is boredom? Well, it's believed to be an emotion that's a less intense form of disgust. A visual representation of emotions developed by Robert Plutchik shows them all on a wheel. Notice that boredom shares a spoke with disgust and loathing. They are different intensities of the same emotion. You see, boredom pushes us away from low-stimulus situations because variety and stimulation literally lead to neurogenesis-- brain-cell growth. We are here today doing what we do because boredom has guided us toward greater and greater challenges and bigger and more complex brains. So what is it like to be deprived of the sensations and social interactions so many of us take for granted? ♪ ♪ A landmark study at Harvard and Virginia Universities found that students prefer to experience physical pain over 15 minutes of boredom. To demonstrate the surprising lengths people will go to to avoid boredom, we brought in an unsuspecting subject for what he believes to be a focus group. We begin by introducing a set of stimuli, one of which is very unpleasant. [device buzzes] - Oh, shit. - What? - Shocked the shit out of me. Touch it. [device buzzes] - [grunts] It did shock me. - No, it didn't. Did it really? - Yeah, it did. - He doesn't like it. - That really shocked me. - Our fake focus test continues. - So let's start with the shock button. Jamison, would you choose to experience this again? - I don't want to do that again. - Why wouldn't you? - 'Cause it shocked me, and I can still feel it going down my forearm. - Now it's time for Jamison's true test-- the test of boredom. - You will be in the room for 30 minutes. Please remain in your chair. Feel free to re-experience the electric-shock button... - Okay. Okay. - Or not. - All right, the moment of truth. [door closes] When the only two options are boredom or painful shock, which will our subject choose? He's not even looking at the button. Oh. It hasn't even been a minute yet, and already Jamison is restless. [pensive music] With 29 minutes to go and no other stimulation in the room, the shock button is a tempting object to occupy Jamison's mind. ♪ ♪ Remember what Jamison said a few minutes ago. - I don't want to do that again. - But will he desire stimulation so strongly, he just goes ahead and pushes that button? ♪ ♪ [device buzzes] - [grunts] - It took exactly one minute and 57 seconds of boredom for Jamison's mind to go from, "Never again," to "Sure, I'll give myself an electric shock to relieve boredom." Sometimes stimulation, any stimulation is perceived as better than none at all. This guy doesn't like being bored. Can he resist touching it a second time? [dramatic music] ♪ ♪ [device buzzes] - [grunts, laughing] - We're social animals. Whether it's another human or a volleyball or an electric-shock button, you'll make friends with whatever you need to. Jamison? I'm Michael. Thanks for coming in today. - Sure. - So tell me a little bit about what you've been up to here in this room. - I've been sitting in this room with a button. - Yeah. - And despite saying I didn't want to press it again, I pressed it twice. - Why? - I was just bored in this room, I suppose, so... - Really? - Yeah. - Did that hurt? - Yes. - The hypothesis is that when left alone with a very negative stimulus, people will go ahead an re-experience it just because it's something to do. - I'm one of them. - [laughs] We dislike being bored so much, sometimes physical pain is preferable. But intentionally putting yourself into what would seem to be the most boring environment possible can be useful. It's called sensory deprivation. ♪ ♪ Psychologists have conducted experiments in sensory deprivation since the 1930s. During the Cold War, the military used sensory deprivation for both training and interrogation. In the 1970s, the activity became recreational, with soundproof, lightproof flotation tanks that keep you buoyant with salt water that is the same temperature as your body. ♪ ♪ All right, so I'm on my way to a subterranean float lab. This company sells sensory deprivation. This will be sort of a training session for my three days in isolation, and I'm getting guidance from an expert. Hey, Dominic. How are you? - Hey. What's up, Michael? - You know Dominic Monaghan from "Lord of the Rings" and the TV series "Lost." - Now, this is your first time, right? - This is my first time. I'm a little nervous. I've never been alone without any stimulation. - One of my favorite things about floating is, there's nothing else going on. - Okay. - You can't see anything. You can't hear anything. You can't do anything. You just have to look at you. And for some people, that's scary. It's like looking in a mirror for hours. This flotation tank is a really good way of getting him prepped for the isolation chamber, but I also think he needs to be okay with the fact that it's gonna put him outside of his comfort zone. The mind is a good thing to lose every so often. - All right, let's take a peek. ♪ ♪ Oh. So this is the room. This is where I will be floating for the next hour, alone with nothing to do but listen to my thoughts. ♪ ♪ I'll see you on the other side. ♪ ♪ - The mind is a good thing to lose every so often. You have to remind fear that you're in the driver's seat." - Hey. - Hey, Dominic. - How was it? - It was really good. - Yeah? - Can we sit down? - Yeah, let's do it. - My initial thought when I laid down was, "Wow, this is buoyant." And then I just... started thinking about errands and tasks, but at some point... well, it was like dreams. - Uh-huh. - But my eyes were open. Like, it was sort of like half-dreams you have either when you're about to fall asleep or when you're waking up. - That's when it gets interesting. You're allowing your brain to be free. You're just floating in space. You're just atoms that are on the top of this pool, floating in space. So now you've done this, and you're doing this isolation booth. Do you think that that was in some way helpful or a hindrance? - It made me more... unhappy about what's coming up. 72 hours is quite a bit different than one hour. ♪ ♪ Some people choose isolation to learn about isolation. As we prepare to explore other planets, we're faced with a little issue. Stuff in outer space is really, really far apart. Within our own solar system, even a trip to Mars would take months in each direction. That's a long time to spend cut off from the rest of humanity, stuck in a tiny spaceship. To get ready for those journeys, we have subjected some people to extreme conditions here on Earth. In 1989, a young Italian interior designer named Stefania Follini volunteered for a NASA experiment to help study the effects of isolation associated with space travel. She spent 130 days alone in a plexiglass cell in a cave 30 feet underground in New Mexico. In the absence of timepieces and any sign of day or night, Ms. Follini's body was thrown out of wack. Her menstrual cycle stopped, and her sleep-wake cycle changed radically. She tended to stay away for 20 to 25 hours at a time, sleeping about 10 hours. When she finally emerged, she mistakenly believed she'd only been underground about half as long as she actually had. As difficult as Stefania's experience was, at least she had books to read. In my isolation chamber, I will only have white walls to stare at. ♪ ♪ Alone time-- what a pleasure. Checking out, getting away from it all, relaxing... banishment from society, the silent treatment, solitary confinement. [dramatic music] Solitude isn't always nice. ♪ ♪ What happens when isolation is not voluntary? William Brown has firsthand knowledge of solitary confinement. So, William, how much of your life have you spent in prison?