Alone With Their Thoughts

Alone with their thoughts. In 1654, scientist and philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Now, there’s some science behind that statement.

A study was conducted by the journal Science and they found that many people prefer a self-administered electrical shock to sitting quietly in a room alone with their thoughts!

Our inability to be alone with our thoughts may not be the root of all of our problems, but one thing is certain: we are really bad at it, at least under the circumstances the researchers tested.

The study

So the researchers gathered the participants in their lab and gave them the ‘bad news’. They were to sit alone in an empty room for ten to twenty minutes. They then took everything away from them — cell phones, watches, iPods, everything! Next, they showed the participants some random pictures (probably for stimulation). Finally they pointed out a nearby button, which, when pressed, would give the participants an electrical shock.

Erin Westgate, a PhD student, says they had each participant press the button just for practice, and then wanted to know how unpleasant it was and whether they’d pay money not to be shocked again. The participants confirmed that the shock was unpleasant and, yes, they would pay money to avoid being shocked again.

Following was for the test subjects to sit and entertain themselves with their own thoughts for ten to twenty minutes. But they weren’t allowed to get out of the chair and they must keep awake. They encouraged the participants to entertain themselves with pleasant thoughts. And oh, if you’d like to receive an electric shock again, please, go ahead and press the button.

The research team was astounded by the results. At the end of the study they found that about 70 percent of the men and 25 percent of the women chose to shock themselves during the ten minutes or so, instead of just sitting there alone with their thoughts.”

‘Now, why would someone do this?’ Westgate asks. ‘Why is it so difficult to entertain ourselves with our thoughts that we prefer almost anything else to turn to, it seems, to avoid it?’

The research team then reached out to the wider community for volunteers – and they got pretty much the same results.

‘These were adults’, Westgate says, ‘and we had them [sit] in their home – without the shock or supervision – and asked them to do the same thing. They must just sit there alone and entertain themselves with their thoughts for ten to fifteen minutes. And again they were terrible at it!’

Over half of the participants confessed to cheating. They got on their phones and talked to other people.

Why did this happen?

Westgate speculated after the research tests that it may have to do with mental control. That our minds were not designed to withdraw from the environment and the people around us to focus inwards.

They did, however, find a ‘very, very small correlation’ between people who had experience with meditation and the ability to do the kind of thinking tested in the study, but Westgate says that didn’t explain the results. It wasn’t the key they were looking for. Maybe if they focused specifically on people with more meditation experience they would get different results, she wonders.

So, how hard is this, really? It must vary a great deal, based on temperament and life experience, right?


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