‘A Keen Vision and Feeling of All Ordinary Human Life’

Sarah Garfinkel and Akshi Singh discuss loneliness and solitude through the lens of Sarah's work on interoception, the perception of sensations from inside the body. Their conversation, filmed during the second COVID-19 lockdown in England, covers emotional mirroring, empathy, and neurodivergent loneliness, and is followed by Akshi's suggestions for further reading and listening.

During the UK’s second period of national lockdown, we sat down with Sarah Garfinkel to discuss solitude. Sarah is Professor of Cognitive Neuroscientist at UCL, but listening to her speak, one may be forgiven for thinking that she is also working on creating a nuanced poetics of the body. Sarah’s interest in the body is informed by interoception, the process by which we sense the inner experience of our body; however, her research also speaks to literary and philosophical accounts of the organs as seats of emotion, feminist arguments about not splitting intellectual activity from embodied experience, and recent psychoanalytic work on infants and their caregivers. You can watch our conversation with Sarah here.

Much like the work of our own project, Sarah’s work contributes to our understanding of the complex inner experience of solitude and, in particular, the embodied physical experience of being alone. For those interested in thinking about this experience further, we would suggest the following texts, all of which show how, in the experience of solitude, mind and body, and self and other, are (to borrow Sarah’s words) ‘intrinsically and dynamically coupled’:

  • The Inner Touch: Archaeology of a Sensation by Daniel Heller Roazen – an account of what has been variously called the inner touch, the master sense, or, in Brian Dillon’s review of the book, ‘the sensation of sensation’, this book offers a journey through the rich philosophical and literary tradition of thinking about this everyday, immediate but also elusive sense.
  • The Hands of the Living God by Marion Milner – a book that allows us to think about the conditions required for such a sense of being a self to exist, and the ways in which this would shape the ability to experience solitude.
  • ‘Motherese in Interaction: At the Cross-Road of Emotion and Cognition?’ by Marie Christine Lazanik et al – a psychoanalyst working with infants likely to receive a diagnosis of autism, writes about the effects of ‘motherese’ or ‘parentese’ (the particular prosodic intonation of surprise and delight that parents or their substitutes use in speaking to infants) in shaping the infant’s ability to respond to an other.
  • Brain-body interactions underlying the association of loneliness with mental and physical health‘ by Lisa Quadt et al – a narrative review of current research on the manifold interactions between loneliness, affective symptomatology, neural and embodied processing relevant to physical health, mental health, and neurodiversity.


Sarah Garfinkel (@DrSFink) is Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at UCL and a ‘Nature Index’ 2018 Rising Star. 

Akshi Singh is a postdoctoral research fellow on the ‘Pathologies of Solitude’ project at Queen Mary University of London. 


You can listen to Sarah Garfinkel on our ‘Space of Solitude’ podcast here