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A recent article published in the journal Science found that “participants typically did not enjoy spending 6 to 15 minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think.”1 Humans are capable of day-dreaming, fantasizing, meditating, and praying but when given time and space to do so, researchers found that most of the participants found it to be unsettling and rated their enjoyment of the time as low.
Participants were put into an unadorned room with nothing on which to focus for 6, 12, or 15 minutes. At the end of the time they were asked questions about the experience. “On average, participants did not enjoy the experience very much: 49.3% reported enjoyment that was at or below the midpoint of the scale.”2 When the researchers did further experiments with other participants and gave them the option of “entertaining themselves with their own thoughts” or engaging in activities such as reading or listening to music many chose to do something rather than just think. The participants also enjoyed the activities more than they enjoyed time spent thinking.
The researchers took things one step further and gave people the choice of sitting quietly thinking or giving themselves an electric shock. The participants had previously experienced the shock and knew it to be unpleasant. “Many participants elected to receive negative stimulation over no stimulation – especially men: 67% of men (12 of 18) gave themselves at least one shock during the thinking period . . . compared to 25% of women.”3 The researchers found it striking that many participants found being alone with their own thoughts for 15 minutes so unpleasant that they would rather self-administer a shock that they had previously indicated they wanted to avoid.
The paper concludes by saying,
There is no doubt that people are sometimes absorbed by interesting ideas, exciting fantasies, and pleasant daydreams. Research has shown that minds are difficult to control, however, and it may be particularly hard to steer our thoughts in pleasant directions and keep them there. This may be why many people seek to gain better control of their thoughts with meditation and other techniques, with clear benefits. Without such training, people prefer doing to thinking, even if what they are doing is . . . unpleasant . . . The untutored mind does not like to be alone with itself.4
My own times of prayer and meditation certainly require a good degree of discipline. My mind readily wanders and I must push aside some thoughts so that others are kept foremost. Is this a phenomenon of our present multi-tasking, multi-sensory, noisy world or have other generations experienced the same difficulty of thinking? It would be difficult to get at the answer to this question; but it seems to me that we would do well to set aside some time for quiet reflection. I have a sense that my mind would be a calmer, sweeter place if I could train myself to enjoy “entertaining myself with my own thoughts.” Perhaps I might even find moments of lucidity that would lead to greater insights about myself, my fellow-human, and the world around me. John Milton, in Paradise Lost, said,
“The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.”
I hope that we might all find more heaven than hell in those moments of quiet solitude.
1 (Wilson 2014, 75)
2 (Wilson 2014, 75)
3 (Wilson 2014, 76)
4 (Wilson 2014, 77)
Webb, Jonathan. “Do People Choose Pain Over Boredom?” BBC News Science and Environment. July 4, 2014. http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-28130690 (accessed July 7, 2014).
Wilson, Timothy D. “Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mind.” Science 345, no. 6192 (July 2014): 75-77.