Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Findings

meditation

(Photo: mrhayata/Flickr)

We Really Don’t Like Being Alone With Our Thoughts

• July 03, 2014 • 11:00 AM

(Photo: mrhayata/Flickr)

New research finds having no distractions makes most of us uncomfortable.

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.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 26 • 4:00 PM

Turmoil at JPMorgan

Examiners are reportedly blocked from doing their job as “London Whale” trades blow up.


November 26 • 2:00 PM

Rich Kids Are More Likely to Be Working for Dad

Nepotism is alive and well, especially for the well-off.


November 26 • 12:00 PM

How Do You Make a Living, Taxidermist?

Taxidermist Katie Innamorato talks to Noah Davis about learning her craft, seeing it become trendy, and the going-rate for a “Moss Fox.”


November 26 • 10:28 AM

Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals’ actions pile up quickly.


November 26 • 10:13 AM

Honeybees Touring America


November 26 • 10:00 AM

Understanding Money

In How to Speak Money, John Lanchester explains how the monied people talk about their mountains of cash.


November 26 • 8:00 AM

The Exponential Benefits of Eating Less

Eating less food—whole food and junk food, meat and plants, organic and conventional, GMO and non-GMO—would do a lot more than just better our personal health.


November 26 • 6:00 AM

The Incorruptible Bodies of Saints

Their figures were helped along by embalming, but, somehow, everyone forgot that part.


November 26 • 4:00 AM

The Geography of Real Estate Markets Is Shifting Under Our Feet

Policies aimed at unleashing supply in order to make housing more affordable are relying on outdated models.



November 25 • 4:00 PM

Is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Doing Enough to Monitor Wall Street?

Bank President William Dudley says supervision is stronger than ever, but Democratic senators are unconvinced: “You need to fix it, Mr. Dudley, or we need to get someone who will.”


November 25 • 3:30 PM

Cultural Activities Help Seniors Retain Health Literacy

New research finds a link between the ability to process health-related information and regular attendance at movies, plays, and concerts.


November 25 • 12:00 PM

Why Did Doctors Stop Giving Women Orgasms?

You can thank the rise of the vibrator for that, according to technology historian Rachel Maines.


November 25 • 10:08 AM

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.


November 25 • 10:00 AM

If It’s Yellow, Seriously, Let It Mellow

If you actually care about water and the future of the species, you’ll think twice about flushing.


November 25 • 8:00 AM

Sometimes You Should Just Say No to Surgery

The introduction of national thyroid cancer screening in South Korea led to a 15-fold increase in diagnoses and a corresponding explosion of operations—but no difference in mortality rates. This is a prime example of over-diagnosis that’s contributing to bloated health care costs.



November 25 • 6:00 AM

The Long War Between Highbrow and Lowbrow

Despise The Avengers? Loathe the snobs who despise The Avengers? You’re not the first.


November 25 • 4:00 AM

Are Women More Open to Sex Than They Admit?

New research questions the conventional wisdom that men overestimate women’s level of sexual interest in them.


November 25 • 2:00 AM

The Geography of Innovation, or, Why Almost All Japanese People Hate Root Beer

Innovation is not a product of population density, but of something else entirely.


November 24 • 4:00 PM

Federal Reserve Announces Sweeping Review of Its Big Bank Oversight

The Federal Reserve Board wants to look at whether the views of examiners are being heard by higher-ups.



November 24 • 2:00 PM

That Catcalling Video Is a Reminder of Why Research Methods Are So Important

If your methods aren’t sound then neither are your findings.


November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


Follow us


Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals' actions pile up quickly.

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.