Think about just thinking. Not doing anything else but thinking. It´s not rocket science, right? In fact, the ability to engage in conscious thoughts is a distinctive feature of human kind. We’ve been doing it for quite some time then. But still, to be with oneself is a hell of a task.
Let your mind wander for up to fifteen minutes in a bare-walled empty room with nothing but yourself. This simple experiment, conducted on dozens of people aged 18 to 77, was enough to illustrate the discomfort that we experience from being with our own minds. 1
The study was aimed at addressing the effects of mind wandering, a process that everyone experiences often and is considered negative as it interrupts us when we are trying to pay attention. But what if wandering was the goal? The hypothesis was that, given our great imagination and ability to daydream and fantasise, this activity could be enjoyable if carried out on purpose. However, after their 15-minute sessions most subjects reported feelings of intense unpleasantness.
At this point it became clear that people were desperate for distractions so the psychologists in charge of the study decided to give them one. They provided access to a nine-volt battery so that the subjects were able to give themselves small electric shocks. To the researchers surprise, 67% of males and 25% of females chose to shock themselves repeatedly. Oddly enough, all these subjects had previously said they would agree to pay some money to avoid the shock. But when it was just their minds and the shock, the latter didn´t seem to be that bad after all.
The article concluded that, especially amongst men, doing something was much preferred to doing nothing even when that something was negative. The authors attributed the gender difference to the fact that men tend to be more “sensation seeking” than women. So much so that, whereas the average of shocks was around 7 per person, one interesting male subject shocked himself not less than 190 times. For obvious reasons he was left out of the study.
The use of modern technologies is generating a growing concern that our sometimes-compulsive multitasking makes us not able to focus and to reflect deeply on something. Some authors claim that this behavior is even affecting the ability to form our own opinions. Others go further and suggest that our society is not cultivating the necessary competencies to make good use of the new technological tools.
If, as a reader, you think of all the other things that you might have been doing while or in between reading this article, it is possible that you agree with these statements to some degree. That´s partly the reason why the release of this study drew significant media attention, and many press articles associated the findings with the use of technology. Only one little detail: the authors of the paper did not establish this link at any point. In fact, those individuals using less social media did not have a better experience than the rest. They speculate that our discomfort when not doing anything might instead arise from an animal desire shared with all mammals “to be engaged in the world”.
Regardless of the causes, the action of mind wandering has been found to make people unhappy even when daydreaming about happy things, as reported by a previous study 2. Despite being an activity that is linked to creativity, that allows us to make plans for the future and to think about the past, it might also be a burden. As the authors see it, “the ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost”.
Disclaimer: while writing this article, the author also experienced several episodes of involuntary mind wandering but at not point was he tempted to inflict himself any pain. Admittedly, he didn´t have any 9-volt batteries either.
- Wilson T.D., E. C. Westgate, D. T. Gilbert, N. Ellerbeck, C. Hahn, C. L. Brown & A. Shaked (2014). Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mind, Science, 345 (6192) 75-77. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.1250830 ↩
- Killingsworth M.A. & D. T. Gilbert (2010). A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind, Science, 330 (6006) 932-932. DOI:http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.1192439 ↩