The Fallible Mind

Emotion, perception, and other tricks of the brain

When Daydreams Become a Shocking Experience

Why some people prefer electrocution to being alone with their own thoughts.

Mention daydreaming and letting one's mind wander, and people typically think of them as building blocks of creativity.  Science has repeatedly confirmed this association, and has further shown that the ability to let one's mind wander goes along having a working memory that is far better than average.

History abounds with examples of famous writers, scientists, and artists who had their best flashes of insight precisely when their minds had wandered from the problem at hand—Vladimir Nabokov and Virginia Woolf, Albert Einstein and August Kekulé, Pablo Picasso and Georgia O’Keeffe.

Given how this gateway to creative problem solving has proven so robust over time, wouldn't it make sense to practice it deliberately, or to teach schoolchildren how to cultivate the skill?

Yet how surprising that in recent experiments by Timothy Wilson at the University of Virginia that some people would rather distract themselves by self-administering electric shocks than be left alone with their own thoughts.

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That’s right: one–quarter of women and two–thirds of men who participated were so uncomfortable keeping their own company that during a 15–minute period they gladly zapped themselves from 7 to 190 times. Even when encouraged to fantasize about a dream vacation or a dreamy erotic liaison, participants still didn’t relish time alone with themselves. As the experimenter put it, subjects seemed “desperate for distractions.”

These results are certainly counterintuitive if not metaphorically shocking. The ability to mentally disengage from one’s immediate surroundings has always been considered the reason that early human minds escaped from reflexive, unthinking behavior and gradually became able to think about hypotheticals far removed from their immediate circumstance. Thus high–level thinking and creativity were born.

It may well be that our modern surfeit of smartphones, instant messages, e–mail, social media, and more offers up so many distractions that being quiet with one’s own thoughts has come to feel strange. It’s a hard conclusion to argue against, and an even harder possibility to ponder that modern life has made it increasingly harder to disengage.

Richard E. Cytowic, M.D., is a neurologist best known for bringing synesthesia back to mainstream science. His latest book is Wednesday Is Indigo Blue.

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