Neuronarrative

Musings on the complicated business of thinking

Why Is Being Alone With Our Thoughts So Hard?

Some of us would rather experience physical pain than face our inner dialogue.

Most people really don’t like being in their own heads, new research suggests. Some would even rather give themselves an electric shock instead of facing their thoughts.

Timothy Wilson, psychology professor at the University of Virginia (U.Va.), and colleagues from U.Va. and Harvard conducted 11 experiments to determine how well people tolerate a few minutes of quiet time. They tested a broad age range, from college students to folks pushing their 80s, and found a consistent result: people have a hard time tolerating even a few minutes alone with nothing vying for their attention.

The amount of time varied from six to 15 minutes with absolutely no distractions—no smartphones, laptops, TVs or tablets, or other people. And though brief, those few minutes proved difficult to handle for most.

"Those of us who enjoy some down time to just think likely find the results of this study surprising – I certainly do – but our study participants consistently demonstrated that they would rather have something to do than to have nothing other than their thoughts for even a fairly brief period of time," Wilson said.

Having established that alone time is generally uncomfortable for young and old, the research team decided to find out if study participants would be willing to do something painful instead of wrestling with their thoughts. So they again sequestered people for a few minutes alone and gave them a button that, if pressed, would deliver a mild electric shock.

And several people pressed it.

"Simply being alone with their own thoughts for 15 minutes 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,” the researchers write.

It’s worth noting that more men than women pressed the button (67% versus 25% of women), which Wilson attributes to men being more zealous sensation seekers than women, according to prior research.

So what are we to make of all this?  Have we become so enraptured with gadgets, social media and the dull roar of crowds that we can’t stomach facing ourselves? Maybe, but Wilson thinks the chicken and egg of this equation might line up in the opposite direction: the devices and distractions we rely on to capture our attention exist because the human mind is more comfortable focusing outwardly.

"The mind is designed to engage with the world," Wilson said. "Even when we are by ourselves, our focus usually is on the outside world. And without training in meditation or thought-control techniques, which still are difficult, most people would prefer to engage in external activities."

In this view, all of our media technologies—old and new, from books to smartphones and beyond—have emerged from our minds’ desire to get out of our heads.

This strikes me as a perfect topic for self-experimentation. Give it a try—find someplace where you won’t be distracted by anything for 15 minutes, just you and your thoughts, and report whether the respite was enjoyable or uncomfortable. Can you do the time without cheating?

The study was published in the journal Science.

You can find David DiSalvo on Twitter @neuronarrative and at his website The Daily Brain. His latest book is Brain Changer: How Harnessing Your Brain’s Power To Adapt Can Change Your Life.

David DiSalvo is a science and technology writer working at the intersection of cognition and culture.

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