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Three Isolation Experts on the ‘Cabin Fever’ Song from ‘Muppet Treasure Island’

Scientific accuracy has never been the Muppets' strong suit — just ask Beaker

In my 34 years on planet Earth, I’ve learned a lot from the Muppets. As a child, I learned letters and numbers from the gang on Sesame Street, and as an adolescent and now adult in pursuit of their dreams, Kermit’s words from The Muppet Movie are literally my personal credo: “Life’s like a movie, write your own ending, keep believing, keep pretending.”

I’m not kidding, this plaque literally hangs in my office next to a life-size Kermit replica:

But I’ve also adopted a few misconceptions in my education from the Muppets, like, for example, the fact that my entire perception of the Swedish language is based upon the Swedish Chef, and until recently, Kermit and Miss Piggy’s abusive relationship seemed okay. Along with these misconceptions is the term “cabin fever,” which we’ve all been hearing a lot about recently — yet I honestly cannot hear the phrase without envisioning the Muppets singing it aboard their pirate ship in Muppet Treasure Island.

So in an attempt to better educate myself, I reached out to a few isolation experts to ask some questions about the real cabin fever and how it compares to the Muppets’ musical interpretation. Like, can it really “burn in your brain,” as one of the pirate Muppets says? Or can it make you square dance, dress in fruit or spontaneously speak German? 

These are the kinds of pressing questions I have, so let’s get into them…

On What Cabin Fever Is

Paul Rosenblatt, professor emeritus in family social science at the University of Minnesota and the leader of a 1983 study on the subject of cabin fever: “Cabin fever” is a term in everyday English that describes how people feel when their freedom to go out and about is greatly limited. For example, a person that I knew who served long stints underwater on a Navy submarine said he and his shipmates definitely had cabin fever.

Carmel Johnston, NASA scientist and crew commander of a mission where she and five other scientists spent a year in isolation to simulate life on Mars: There are a lot of definitions of cabin fever, but generally I think it’s that feeling of getting antsy or anxious when you’re stuck in a confined space and you don’t have a lot of your regular outlets in life.

James Coan, director of the Virginia Affective Neuroscience Lab and host of the science podcast Circle of Willis: Cabin fever isn’t a real thing in the sense of being a diagnosis, so cabin fever isn’t really anything. That said, a lot of the things people are reporting right now — like loneliness, restlessness, sleeplessness and anxiety — those are what people and the popular culture associate with cabin fever.

On Where the Term Came From

Rosenblatt: The “cabin” in the term “cabin fever” originally referred to being stuck in a simple and isolated living place — like a cabin — in bad weather. 

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On What the Symptoms Are

Rosenblatt: Symptoms include feeling trapped, restless, irritable, depressed, bored and wanting to escape. It happens when people are limited in where they can go and what they can do, and particularly when they’re tightly confined. Long-term cabin fever can make one very depressed and can lead to abuse of co-residents physically or psychologically. It can also lead to overdosing with alcohol or drugs and other poor self-care. It also can lead to very high anxiety or otherwise serious problems kicking in or becoming more intense. 

Coan: There are different kinds of isolation, and my specialty has more to do with social isolation than it does with being kept in a certain physical location, which is what they’re talking about in that goofy Muppets song. In that, the Muppets want to get away from each other and maybe some families feel that way, but what I can speak to, professionally, has more to do with the effects of social isolation, which can make it harder for us to think and process information. We’ll also have a harder time regulating our emotions and regulating our behavior. Isolation will also make the world seem scarier than it may actually be. 

Johnston: Everyone reacts differently to cabin fever — some get depressed, some get anxious and some might crack up and start finding things funny that aren’t. 

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Does It Result In Shakes?

Rosenblatt: No.

Coan: I doubt it.

Johnston: Probably — there are all kinds of psychological aspects to being in isolation, so, depending upon the person, I think it could.

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Can It “Burn In Your Brain”?

Rosenblatt: No.

Coan: Nope.

Johnston: Yeah, a lot of people get angry or mad in isolation. I know a lot of people are furious right now and it’s not because they’re mad at who they live with, but because they’re mad at this shitty situation.

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Could It Cause One to Dress Like Carmen Miranda?

Rosenblatt: No.

Coan: God, I hope so. That would be great — we need more of that.

Johnston: I don’t know who that is.

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Can It Cause One Break Into Dance?

Rosenblatt: No.

Coan: Regrettably, no.

Johnston: I would highly recommend dancing while you’re stuck in isolation. 

Can It Make Someone Spontaneously Speak German?

Rosenblatt: No.

Coan: I hope so, because German is the funniest language.

Johnston: Yeah, lots of people are learning foreign languages right now, so definitely. 

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On Whether or Not Watching the Muppets Can Help One Suffering From Cabin Fever

Rosenblatt: So I was at first put off by the Muppets’ “Cabin Fever” video, because I could take it as not taking seriously the real problems that some people have. On the other hand, I like the video because of its energy, playfulness and musicality, which could cheer up some people and pull them, at least for a while, out of an unpleasant place.

Johnston: Absolutely, watching the Muppets could definitely help. Funnily enough, on the mission I was the commander of, one my crewmates designed a Muppet T-shirt that has since become pretty popular, so there’s some weird connection between watching the Muppets and being in isolation.

Coan: Yeah, of course watching the Muppets could help. The Muppet movies almost always have one or two moments that are sublimely hilarious. In all seriousness, laughter is a very good idea for dealing with what we’re experiencing right now. I wouldn’t recommend lots of movies like Contagion or things like that, even though we’re drawn to it. Even the news, yes, we need to remain informed, but we need that for one half an hour a day — that’s it. 

In that cabin fever song, the Muppets are dancing, singing and dressing up in fruit — they’re being silly and silliness is like the cold water on the burn of anxiety. So we should be watching the Muppets or Charlie Chaplin or Laurel and Hardy or maybe Planes, Trains and Automobiles or the Christopher Guest films — stuff that’s just fucking funny. And if, as an adult, you find the need to go for something more sophisticated, just don’t. Don’t get too cerebral — just go for the silliness.