On Science

The Shocking Truth

Anything’s better than being alone with your thoughts

By Josie Glausiusz | August 6, 2014
Photo by Umesh Behari Mathur
Photo by Umesh Behari Mathur


I like ants. They fascinate me. Paraphrasing the Victorian writer and humorist Jerome K. Jerome (“I like work: it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours.”), I can sit and watch ants for—well, maybe not hours. Minutes, at least. Maybe 10 of them.

I know I am unusual in this, because typically I’m the only parent in the playground pointing out the local insect and other fauna to children. The other day we spotted a praying mantis; a few weeks ago, a tiptoeing chameleon. But when I draw other parents’ attention to these natural wonders, they typically utter “Ugh,” or ignore me. Maybe they don’t hear me because of important interactions with their smartphones.

I am certainly not immune to the allure of a smartphone. But isn’t it true that many people today seem incapable of being alone with their own thoughts? Have they forgotten how to simply stare into space and daydream, or look out a window on a bus or a train, or just be with their children or with other people? Even during shared meals, many people favor their phones.

New research published in the journal Science shows that, indeed, some of those studied would rather administer an electric shock to themselves than dwell on their own thoughts. Psychologist Timothy D. Wilson and colleagues at the University of Virginia conducted 11 studies on different groups of recruits to see how pleasurable they perceive the experience of disengaging from the outside world. In the first six studies, carried out on 413 undergraduates, the researchers asked participants to sit by themselves in an unadorned room for six to 15 minutes, “entertaining themselves with their thoughts.” On average, the researchers say, the subjects did not enjoy the experience: 49.3 percent “reported enjoyment that was at or below the midpoint of the scale.”

That also means that slightly more than 50 percent of participants did enjoy the experience, as Wilson wrote in an email to me. But he pointed to another study in which 30 undergraduates were randomly assigned to either entertain themselves with their own thoughts or immerse themselves in an “external activity” such as reading a book or listening to music. Participants enjoyed the external activities much more than mind-wandering, and, as Wilson writes, “the difference in enjoyment ratings was huge.”

In a further study of 55 additional undergraduate recruits, participants were asked to rate the pleasantness or unpleasantness of a series of positive and negative stimuli, including guitar music and a mild electric shock “designed to be unpleasant but not painful.” They were asked to imagine that the researcher had given them $5, and told to indicate how much they would pay either to experience the stimulus again, or how much they would pay not to see or hear it again. They were then instructed to entertain themselves with their own thoughts for 15 minutes but were also given the option, if they so desired, to self-administer a mild electric shock.

Sixty-seven percent of the men in this study chose to give themselves at least one electric shock during their thinking time, compared with 25 percent of the women. “What is striking,” the researchers write, “is that simply being alone with their thoughts for 15 min[utes] 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.”

Wilson’s study shows that many people do find it onerous to occupy themselves with their own thoughts, perhaps because they quickly become caught up in depressing rumination. But I wondered if the ubiquity of smartphones and their constant, instant distraction had weakened our ability to daydream. His response: “My guess is that it is a circular relationship. One reason phones and other devices are so popular, I suspect, is because many people find it difficult to entertain themselves with their own minds. But, because these devices are so readily available, people don’t get much practice in ‘just thinking.’”

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