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We Really Don't Like Being Alone With Our Thoughts

New research finds having no distractions makes most of us uncomfortable.
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(Photo: mrhayata/Flickr)

(Photo: mrhayata/Flickr)

Which pastime would you prefer: Sitting alone quietly with your thoughts, or experiencing an electric shock?

The answer may seem obvious. But consider for a moment what it’s like to have no distractions from your ongoing mental chatter, which Buddhists refer to as “monkey mind.”

Thoughts pop up rapidly and randomly, like a sour, surrealistic movie we can’t turn off. Fears and regrets we’ve pushed aside reappear front and center, resulting in increased agitation and the desire for some form of escape—even, perhaps, a jolt of current.

That scenario may or may not sound familiar, but it clearly applies to a lot of people. A research team led by University of Virginia psychologist Timothy Wilson reports that, in a series of studies, “participants typically did not enjoy spending 6 to 15 minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think.”

"Simply being alone with their own thoughts for 15 minutes was apparently so aversive that it drove many participants to self-administer an electronic shock that they had earlier said they would pay to avoid."

What’s more, in the researchers’ most remarkable result, “many preferred to administer electronic shocks to themselves instead of being left alone with their thoughts.”

“The untutored mind does not like to be alone with itself,” Wilson and his colleagues conclude in the journal Science.

The researchers demonstrated our aversion to rumination in 11 similarly structured studies. Participants—mostly university students, but also community members recruited at a church and a farmer’s market—were instructed to spend a specific amount of time (five to 15 minutes) “entertaining themselves with their thoughts.”

In most of the studies, the participants sat in an unadorned room at the university, separated from “all of their belongings, including cell phones and writing implements.” After their “thinking period” was over, they reported on the experience.

“Most participants reported that it was difficult to concentrate,” the researchers report, adding that “on average, participants did not enjoy the experience very much: 49.3 percent reported enjoyment that was at or below the midpoint of the scale.”

In two additional studies, participants performed the same experiment at home, with similar results. Many found it difficult to follow the simple instructions, admitting afterwards that they had cheated by listening to music or checking their cell phone during their quiet period.

In the most startling study, participants began by rating the pleasantness or unpleasantness of different sorts of stimuli, including attractive photographs and the aforementioned electric shocks. Afterwards, they were asked how much they would pay (out of a $5 allowance) to not experience the jolts again.

They then began 15 minutes of quiet time. But unlike previous participants, they had an out: “They could receive an electric shock again during the thinking period by pressing a button.”

Amazingly, 67 percent of the men—that is, 12 of 18—gave themselves at least one shock during this period of thought and reflection.

Only 25 percent of the women self-administered the jolt—still a high number when you consider there is physical discomfort involved. “The gender difference is probably due to the tendency of men to be higher in sensation-seeking,” the researchers write.

That point aside, “Simply being alone with their own thoughts for 15 minutes was apparently so aversive that it drove many participants to self-administer an electronic shock that they had earlier said they would pay to avoid," they write.

Wilson and his colleagues (including Daniel Gilbert of Harvard University) can only speculate as to why solitary thinking proved so unsettling to so many. They noted that participants may have “focused on their own shortcomings and got caught in ruminative thought cycles”—the scenario described earlier.  Linguistic analysis of their answers didn’t show evidence of such spirals, but it’s hard to imagine what else would cause such intense discomfort.

“It may be particularly had to steer our thoughts in pleasant directions and keep them there,” the researchers conclude.

Their results imply that a more practical approach may be to cultivate the ability to watch our thoughts pass by from a detached state. Meditation isn’t an easy technique to learn, but it has many advantages--and requires no electricity.