One might think that in the world where everyone feels overexposed and overstimulated, people are craving peace and quiet. Spending time alone with one’s own thoughts seems like a treat in a whirlpool where everyone and every gadget put a claim on one’s time, privacy and solace. At least, I thought it’s true for, well, many people. And, perhaps, it is.
But then there was a recent article in Science Magazine titled Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mind by Timothy D. Wilson et al.
The editor sums up the research finding in two paragraphs titled Don’t leave me alone with my thoughts:
Nowadays, we enjoy any number of inexpensive and readily accessible stimuli, be they books, videos, or social media. We need never be alone, with no one to talk to and nothing to do.
Wilson et al. explored the state of being alone with one’s thoughts and found that it appears to be an unpleasant experience. In fact, many of the people studied, particularly the men, chose to give themselves a mild electric shock rather than be deprived of external sensory stimuli.
Wilson and his colleagues conducted 11 studies in all and concluded that participants typically did not enjoy spending 6 to 12 minutes in a room by themselves. Granted, participants weren’t allowed books, phones or electronic gadgets of any kind. There was nothing to entertain them, and no tasks to perform. For the entire 6 to 12 minutes!
The rules were simple: remain in your seat and stay awake. Thus, every participant had only one “gadget” to work with, and it was permanently attached to their upper body — their heads with brains inside. Do nothing, play with nothing, all you can do is think… For the entire 6 to 12 minutes!
I suppose, the minuscule amount of time really amazes me. Not days or hours but a few minutes!
“They couldn’t even go for six to 12 minutes,” Wilson says, without succumbing to the pressures of physical distraction. Those results suggest the attraction of our devices may be found simply in their availability, offering a heady escape when our animal brains lack the proper physical engagement.
From the Wilson’s article:
Many participants elected to receive negative stimulation over no stimulation—especially men: 67% of men…, compared to 25% of women… Note that these results only include participants who had reported that they would pay to avoid being shocked again….The gender difference is probably due to the tendency for men to be higher in sensation-seeking. But what is striking is that simply being alone with their own thoughts for 15 min was apparently so aversive that it drove many participants to self-administer an electric shock that they had earlier said they would pay to avoid.
“If it’s there, we’ll use it” is a mantra of our culture. And why not? We are living in a digital world, after all. But what if it’s NOT there? For the long, long, loooong 6 minutes your dozen electronic devices are out of reach, and you are like a little kid locked out of a cookie jar.
Participants of the study resorted to self-administering electric shocks… Well, perhaps, they were hoping to stimulate their brains and make them replace their gadgets for the remaining 3 minutes before the end of the experiment. Ah, probably not.
On the other hand, there is a saying by the 17th-century great mind and Renaissance man, Blaise Pascal: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”