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I had an idea for a character that was stuck in a ghost-like state for a length of time after an accident. During this time, they would have very limited ability to interact with the rest of the world: no one could see or hear them, but they could observe everything happening around them.

They would occasionally be able to interact slightly with the physical world around them, but it would consume so much energy that they would need to rest and recover for an extended time before they could again interact in such a way. Even then, their ability to affect the world in a controlled manner would be limited. They may be able to knock a glass off a table but not write anything legible with a pencil, for example. They would also be limited in how far they could travel away from their starting location before they would be drawn back. However, since that location was in the middle of a college university, there will always be quite a bit to see, with different types of activities all in a fairly close area for them to observe. They will not suffer from hunger, thirst, aging, etc, during this period of time.

I'm wondering what would happen to a human psychologically if stuck in this state for a length of time. I know that a very brief length of time in solitary confinement can cause quickly drive a person insane. How different would it be if one could witness human interaction but not be a part of it? I assume being able to witness human interaction would lower the psychological harm caused by one's isolation to an extent, but how long can someone go without the ability to interact with others before they have reached a point where they would struggle to function in the mundane world even after they are brought back to a normal state?

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    $\begingroup$ In many cultures, the dead's greatest loss is not being alive. That anguish would be multiplied by being dead among the living. That being said, what you describe is the plot for A Christmas Carol, which had a decidedly different outcome. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Dec 1 '19 at 19:54
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    $\begingroup$ While solitary confinement is a good example of the affect that has on the normal human psych, what you have is not actually a normal human. A common mistake of thinking about us is a sort of disembodied intellect but that is not true. For example we have a need for stuff like being touched or sex...etc. And that also includes other things like food or water. Your entity could need those things or not. Depends on what you make them to be. I can imagine you either creating a person in absolute hell or something that is just an intelligence observing the world, both seem valid $\endgroup$ – Seallussus Dec 1 '19 at 20:55
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    $\begingroup$ Perhaps a human whose cell-phone is pretty much discharged? $\endgroup$ – glen_geek Dec 1 '19 at 21:17
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    $\begingroup$ Twilight Zone episode “To See The Invisible Man” suggests the impact is pretty bad: en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/To_See_the_Invisible_Man $\endgroup$ – SRM Dec 1 '19 at 21:19
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This is the effects of being ignored, unseen, and unheard. Psychologically speaking everyone has deep needs to be seen, heard, and validated. A person stuck in your proposed state is effectively discarded from any opportunity of this. Even a momentary interaction would not meet these deep emotional needs. Children who lack positive attention at young ages are significantly more likely to show difficulties re-integrating with society. Fortunately, your character has a history of participating in the real world so it is possible for re-integration to occur, but be warned: it's a VERY long and difficult road.

In more detail, the neural pathways take about three to seven weeks to take hold, and about three to six months to "cement" or form (ie to create a habit). The converse is also true - after about six months of being ignored your brain has entered a state of being "adapted" to no longer living with human contact and attention. To learn more about how this process works I recommend reading The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force (NB: you can safely ignore some of the grandiose claims made by the author - Dr Jeffrey Schwartz - especially about proof of "the mind"; the book does a great job explaining the science and studies behind neural pathways and changes in brain chemistry, even if you disagree with his conclusions).

As your character goes reaches into the six month without any human attention or feedback, they will begin to show signs of isolation, lack of concern for the well-being of others (no longer being shocked or disturbed by violence, for example), and a general sense of emotional "numbness" and indifference. Emotions work a bit like a pipe - it's either on or off. You can't just shut off bad emotions (nor good emotions), when emotions shut down they all shut down.

When this happens, serotonin and dopamine levels in the brain restructure to place the character into their new perceived "role" in society - either at the top or the bottom of it. They would either develop a grandiose god complex, or become deeply depressed with a continual sense of being a shit-stain on the earth.

What would follow in the months and years afterwards would move from a sense of isolation and numbness to full on detachment and dissociation. Basically, your character would "drift away" from identifying as human, and turn into "an other" - a beast of some kind, a god figure of some kind, or a deranged rambling maniac.

Studies around this are nonexistent, as there is no pool of people who become adults and then disappear entirely from society without any interaction at all, especially not for years on end. Such studies would be unethical. But in the USA, if you've been imprisoned for 20 years or more, you qualify for some types of disability benefits because the government believes you're so dissociated from society that you'll never be able to re-integrate (or that doing so is too impractically burdensome). The point being if your character stays in this place for 20 years or more, their brain is likely mush and reintegration would be difficult if not impossible.

However, coming into this ghost-like state after maturity (approx. age 25) and returning to a life-state within 20 years, reintegration is difficult but not impossible. This would be akin to someone with severe brain trauma and amnesia after an accident learning to walk, talk, read, and write again. They would be able to remember these things, but it would seem "like another life" to them. They would have to learn social interactions again from scratch. From simple introductions, to making eye contact, to smiling and showing concern for others. As a general rule, I would expect every month in the ghost-like state (after the six month) to take 2-3 months for integration. Some could do so faster, some longer, but in general if your character was stuck for a year I would anticipate 2-3 years re-integration time on average.

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    $\begingroup$ I am not sure the prison comparison is that good. Prisoners have interactions, with other inmates and wardens. But that's a completely different kind of interactions compared to society. $\endgroup$ – Taladris Dec 2 '19 at 4:33
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    $\begingroup$ Your word choice reminded me of an excellent source of prior art: the unseen castes. There are castes which are so low on the social totem pole, that they are simply "unseen." Their psychology would be a powerful source to draw from. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Dec 2 '19 at 4:52
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    $\begingroup$ Another, possibly better example of a milder version of this than prisoners would be homeless people. They are ignored by the vast majority of people they see all day. Maybe there are studies on the impact on their psychology. $\endgroup$ – quarague Dec 2 '19 at 11:01
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    $\begingroup$ @quarague yes, there are studies on the (chronically) homeless. IMO these studies were poorly done, but you are right that this psychological effect is present. $\endgroup$ – cegfault Dec 2 '19 at 14:33
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    $\begingroup$ @Taladris perhaps I didn't phrase that well enough; what I mean is that if prisoners after 20 years are deemed unable to reintegrate, even though they have human interaction every day, then certainly a greater isolation cause more problems with reintegration $\endgroup$ – cegfault Dec 2 '19 at 14:34
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I imagine your character would become incredibly frustrated, if not go insane outright. I would try to imagine how you would feel if you were unable to speak and had your hands tied behind your back. Sure, you don't have the discomfort of being actually bound, or the frustrations of having to get other people to look after your needs (food, etc.), but still, you can't talk to anyone, can't manipulate your environment in any way...

There's a reason some cultures practice shunning as a form of punishment, or why in general ostracization is usually seen as "bad".

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