Going Alone

Is it uncomfortable to spend time alone with your thoughts? Is thoughtful solitude painful?

For a lot of people, it is.

A recent study run by University of Virginia professor Timothy Wilson had people spending time entirely with themselves. Alone.

Many short experiments were tried.  Each lasted only six to 15 minutes. Since some participants were confused by the task of “sitting with your thoughts,” many different scenarios were provided:

They could plan a vacation. Daydream about a romantic meeting. Consider the most beautiful places they ever visited, again.

Yet many did not want to “relax or think” by themselves.

Discovering their subjects were still uncomfortable, the researchers wondered if they would prefer to do something aversive:

Give themselves electric shocks.

The shocks were mild. They did not hurt too much. But they were unpleasant, and people said they’d pay to avoid them.

Then comes the reason why reports of this study was sent to me by so many people: a quarter of the women shocked themselves during their six to 15 minute “alone” time.

Two thirds of the men did the same. One did it 190 times in a 15 minute session.

Is solitude that unpleasant?

It Was Not Always Thus

When I was a child, people still talked about the great Greta Garbo.

The Swedish actress became, in the 1920s, one of the biggest box office stars in the world. Her signature line was “I want to be alone.”

She first “said” it in the film “Grand Hotel” (observers of the recent hit “The Grand Hotel Budapest,” please take note.) Garbo’s silent Grand Hotel appeared in 1925.

In the talkies that made her one of the global celebrities for a generation, she repeated the line many times. Garbo even had to relearn her earlier and cruder Swedish accent when she reprised the phrase, as the reforming prostitute Anna Christie (1932) to “I vant to be alone.” By 1939 she was satirizing the line in the Billy Wilder script of “Ninotchka,” playing a Russian commissar sent to return fear to straying Paris based Communists. Her more memorable line there, however, was, “The Moscow show trials were a great success. There will be fewer but better Russians.”

The truth was, Garbo wanted to be alone. She would not allow studio bigwigs to watch her on set. Blockers and artificial walls were placed so that stagehands could not observe her acting. She explained that working “separately” allowed her face to show emotions and thoughts that would otherwise never reach the screen.

Solitude has many uses.

Solitude, Work and Peace

Anthony Storr’s book “Solitude” remains the best-known work on the subject, though it was written in 1988.

Even then solitude required defense. Storr argued that many creative geniuses did their best work when allowed to think alone and for themselves.

Yet he pointed out far more. That people could rest in solitude. That ordinary folk often thought most effectively in solitude. That being alone refreshed people for spending time together. Popular books like “Quiet” argued similarly.

In other words, in our time of “creative” knowledge industries, solitude, comfortable time spent thinking on one’s own, is a great way to goose the economy.

But a lot of things have happened to humans and the human body since Garbo’s solitude seeking statement in 1925’s “Grand Hotel.”

People are far less physically active – machines have replaced many manual tasks and trades.

We sleep a lot less – perhaps 90 minutes less, probably more.

Our worlds are far more lit – with lamps and electric devices not only ubiquitous night and day, but far more powerful. Consider the illumination of carlights of the 1920s with ones today, or the wattage from a tablet or iPad – compared to the light of a standard 1920s desk lamp.

Electronic forms of communication, stimulation and monitoring are everywhere – inside people’s palms, or on their hips, at their workstations, even staring at them forlornly in the kitchen, living room, bedroom – and now their car’s dashboards.

There are many more examples of how the human body has changed. Yet the fact has not been fully acknowledged – we no longer have the same bodies we did when our grandparents were born.

We are bigger, thicker. We move a lot less. We receive far different forms of visual and aural input.

Our brains are wired differently. Literally, we have different heads.

And many of those heads are uncomfortable sitting and thinking. It is far easier – and more comfortable – to be reviewing and responding.

Learning Solitude

Societies can train their children to meditate or play soccer, read books or play video games. You will have different kids – and different brains – depending on how they are trained.

Yet solitude has many uses. Too many to let it fall into disuse.

Certainly electronic devices make it possible for “continuous connection” and constant “interaction.” But human bodies, unlike machines, are not built to be “on” all the time.

We have body clocks. We need rest. We need sleep. Otherwise we cease to function sensibly or effectively.

Similarly, we need solitude. It may not be sitting alone and thinking of pleasant, nostalgic memories or planning a new film. For many it is the self-reported tasks of reading, working, or listening to music.

But looking at how our bodies are built, and the way they innately use time, it makes most sense to try and structure our biological days in the ways they are internally constructed. And that means we can conceive of our days and lives as possessing a rhythmic similar to music.

Songs or symphonies have beginnings, middles, ends. They have period that move quickly and parts that are slow. They have repeating rhythms, propulsion, proportion.

And they have pauses. Singers pause for breath. Musicians pause to move their fingers, or shift their sheet music to a different concerto movement or song.

These pauses are not just mechanically and biologically necessary. They often provide pleasurable, sensitive times when the brain is in-between one task and another. Where it is thinking, pondering, considering.

And remembering. For many great pleasures only persist with memory – and then using those memories to create the next thrilling experience or idea.

Plus the pleasure of waiting for the singer to hear the quieting of the milling crowed, and begin the song.

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