Jeffrey Mathias  

Jeffrey Mathias 

My dissertation, tentatively titled “An Empire of Solitude: Isolation and the Cold War Sciences of Mind” examines  isolation as a Cold War matter of concern between 1948 and 1975. At mid-century, soldiers stationed in remote geographies— such as radar operators along the Arctic Distant Early Warning Line or astronauts inhabiting space cabins— were figured as uniquely at risk not only from these hazardous terrains but from the psychological effects of isolation. Concurrently, driven by an imaginary of sophisticated Soviet methods of indoctrination, scientists recast the solitary confinement of prisoners of war as a problem of “perceptual isolation,” hypothesizing that a monotonous sensory environment might render the mind malleable. Laboratory and field studies of isolation, sensory deprivation, and confinement were thus a locus for anxieties about the reliability of the Cold War subject. The body in experimental isolation became a scientific model of the prisoner of war, the radar operator, the astronaut, and, for some, the thinking subject itself.

This research has been supported generously by NASA, the American Historical Association, the Judith Reppy Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies, and the Cornell Society for the Humanities.

My dissertation has led me to develop a related second project: a cultural and intellectual history of cybernetics, the human sciences, and religion. As part of this, I am currently writing a history of the Lindisfarne Association, a mildly apocalyptic commune of intellectuals— including, most notably, anthropologist Gregory Bateson— that, in the 1970s, was the setting for encounters between “Western science” and “Eastern mysticism.” 

“Experimental Interference with Reality Contact,” 1959, NYU. Collection of Robert R. Holt.

“Experiment in Isolation,” 1958, Princeton. Life Magazine.