According to the Wikipedia page for Language Deprivation Experiments,

An experiment allegedly carried out by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II in the 13th century saw young infants raised without human interaction in an attempt to determine if there was a natural language [...]

The experiments were recorded by the monk Salimbene di Adam in his Chronicles, who wrote that Frederick encouraged "foster-mothers and nurses to suckle and bathe and wash the children, but in no ways to prattle or speak with them; [...] But he laboured in vain, for the children could not live without clappings of the hands, and gestures, and gladness of countenance, and blandishments."

There are many feral children that survived without social interaction, but I couldn't find any result for children that died from social isolation and not because of abuse.

Can social isolation kill babies?

  • 50
    My interpretation of the account is not that the children died if all communication was avoided, but rather that in the course of caring for the young children some communication was unavoidable.
    – antlersoft
    Commented Jan 7, 2020 at 16:22
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    Frederick Ii was not the first or the last historical person who allegedly made a similar experiment. And it is quite possible that Salimbene di Adam made up the story because he was an enemy of the Emperor. Commented Jan 7, 2020 at 16:53
  • 15
    I'm pretty sure this account doesn't mean "children die if they don't do those things", but that they can't pass without doing it.
    – T. Sar
    Commented Jan 7, 2020 at 18:46
  • 1
    Ms. Keller was lucky to have survived at all. Now that my daily dose of snark has been fulfilled, perhaps the OP might ask in SE Biology if there have been more recent peer-reviewed scientific testing on this topic?
    – CGCampbell
    Commented Jan 8, 2020 at 12:29
  • 3
    @Damon, no. Deaf people invariably develop some type of nonverbal communication. (Except maybe those of extremely low intelligence.)
    – WGroleau
    Commented Jan 8, 2020 at 16:27

4 Answers 4


We cannot be sure exactly what happened 7 centuries ago; we only have the one account. However something akin to this experiment did occur, albeit without the controlled conditions. In Romania during Communism thousands of children were consigned to orphanages where they were grossly neglected (warning: the linked article contains distressing details).

Many children died under this regime, but we can't tell how much was due to physical versus psychological factors. However many survived despite the neglect.

This article in the Guardian reports that the children have specific areas of the brain smaller than children with normal upbringing.

In conclusion, it seems that gross psychological neglect has measurable neurological consequences but is not generally fatal, contrary to the report of Salimbene di Adam.

  • 3
    I think the report from di Adam isn't exactly contrary to your answer. Like others have stated, it doesn't seem like he's using "live" in the literal sense.
    – PC Luddite
    Commented Jan 8, 2020 at 6:40
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    I can't agree; the most direct reading is that the children died due to lack of communication from their nurses. Commented Jan 8, 2020 at 10:22
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    @PaulJohnson You can't really expect someone from the 13th century to be direct about anything. This type of "colorful writing", full of figures of speech, was the standard back them. They rarely meant things literally.
    – T. Sar
    Commented Jan 8, 2020 at 11:57
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    @T.Sar-ReinstateMonica not only was this standard, but the line between fact and fiction would have been blurrier back then anyway without the methods of verifying and recording information that we take for granted today.
    – PC Luddite
    Commented Jan 8, 2020 at 16:22
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    @PaulJohnson A direct reading would need to be from Latin.
    – erickson
    Commented Jan 8, 2020 at 17:24

Not directly related to your source(s), but see the article pit of despair on Wikipedia. Warning, the article and the experiment itself can be rather disturbing.

Harlow's first experiments involved isolating a monkey in a cage surrounded by steel walls with a small one-way mirror, so the experimenters could look in, but the monkey could not look out. The only connection the monkey had with the world was when the experimenters' hands changed his bedding or delivered fresh water and food. Baby monkeys were placed in these boxes soon after birth; four were left for 30 days, four for six months, and four for a year.

After 30 days, the "total isolates", as they were called, were found to be "enormously disturbed". After being isolated for a year, they barely moved, did not explore or play, and were incapable of having sexual relations. When placed with other monkeys for a daily play session, they were badly bullied. Two of them refused to eat and starved themselves to death.

Harlow also wanted to test how isolation would affect parenting skills, but the isolates were unable to mate. Artificial insemination had not then been developed; instead, Harlow devised what he called a "rape rack", to which the female isolates were tied in normal monkey mating posture. He found that, just as they were incapable of having sexual relations, they were also unable to parent their offspring, either abusing or neglecting them. "Not even in our most devious dreams could we have designed a surrogate as evil as these real monkey mothers were", he wrote. Having no social experience themselves, they were incapable of appropriate social interaction. One mother held her baby's face to the floor and chewed off his feet and fingers. Another crushed her baby's head. Most of them simply ignored their offspring.

So if the results for monkeys apply also to humans, the answer is no: social isolation will not directly kill babies, but it will severely damage them, and some babies will never recover.

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    What an awful price to pay for that knowledge.
    – DrMcCleod
    Commented Jan 10, 2020 at 11:52
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    "Not even in our most devious dreams could we have designed a surrogate as evil as these real monkey mothers were" I dunno mate, it sounds like if anyone could have then it'd be you
    – Michael
    Commented Jan 10, 2020 at 19:05

In addition to the other answers I would like to clarify that Salimbene indeed described an experiment in which the children died of social isolation. Here is the original excerpt1:

Secunda eius superstitio fuit quia voluit experiri, cuiusmodi linguam et loquelam haberent pueri, cum adolevissent, si cum nemine loquerentur. Et ideo precepit baiulis et nutricibus, ut lac infantibus darent, ut mammas sugerent, et balnearent et mundificarent eos, sed nullo modo blandirentur eis nec loquerentur. Volebat enim cognoscere utrum Hebream linguam haberent, que prima fuerat, an Grecam vel Latinam vel Arabicam aut certe linguam parentum suorum, ex quibus nati fuissent. Sed laborabat in cassum, quia pueri sive infantes moriebantur omnes. Non enim vivere possent sine aplausu et gestu et letitia faciei et blanditiis baiularum et nutricum suarum.

The second last sentence translates to "Whether children or infants, they all perished."2

Salimbene was a monk who was in deep opposition to Frederick II, which was a strong advocate of science and reason. So Salimbene was trying to make the point that Frederick was a terrible human being. However, Salimbene probably made this all up and these experiments never happened.3

  • Not really any amguity in the word "moriebantur", +1
    – PC Luddite
    Commented Jan 9, 2020 at 22:49

Extreme stress and/or psychological neglect can certainly deeply affect the development of a young child in a way that can't be completely reversed. This stress does not mean physical abuse or starvation but simply ignoring kids for long periods or not showing them love.

Such children can sometimes actually become dwarfs because their bodies do not produce enough growth hormone; this is a pretty profound effect from something other than physical punishment. The brain's development can definitely be affected also.

I would guess that such extreme neglect might not directly cause death but could make the body less good at fighting infection so that such children might die of an illness that a normal child could fight off.

  • 5
    It would be great if you could add citations to published scientific research supporting your answers.
    – DrMcCleod
    Commented Jan 10, 2020 at 11:54
  • yes, it would. i knew mccleod who went to medical school in ny although from west coast.
    – releseabe
    Commented Jan 10, 2020 at 12:34

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