You’d Rather Give Yourself Electric Shocks Than Sit Alone with Your Thoughts

This is costing you.

A few years back, during my tenure as a playwright, I took an entire month off of my day job so that I could have enough quiet space in my life to figure out how to creatively move forward towards my goals. Each day, I took multi-hour-long walks. By the end of the time, I’d come up with the idea for what became the favorite of my plays.

Now when I take walks, I mostly listen to podcasts.

These days, I often furtively look for opportunities to check in with my smartphone at breaks in conversations, even when I’ve checked in only moments before. A lifelong reader, I sometimes have a hard time reading even minimally-demanding books without frequent breaks to check what’s up with my email.

But—good news!—researchers are on the case:

“We had noted how wedded to our devices we all seem to be and that people seem to find any excuse they can to keep busy,” said Timothy Wilson, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia and lead author of [a study published last June in the journal Science]. “No one had done a simple study letting people go off on their own and think.”

The results surprised him and have created a stir in the psychology and neuroscience communities. In 11 experiments involving more than 700 people, the majority of participants reported that they found it unpleasant to be alone in a room with their thoughts for just 6 to 15 minutes.

Moreover, in one experiment, 64 percent of men and 15 percent of women began self-administering electric shocks when left alone to think. These same people, by the way, had previously said they would pay money to avoid receiving the painful jolt. (New York Times, July 25, 2014)

Electric shocks are sometimes preferable to being alone with our thoughts! And it’s interesting to note the gender differences. That 15 percent of women would choose the electric shock is astounding. That 64 percent of men would is bonkers.

Professor Wilson is not the only person to consider the impact of our devices on our consciousness and the quality of our lives. Elizabeth Segran, in Fast Company, detailed an anti-smartphone movement. Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, wrote a popular piece for the Wall Street Journal about how all creativity comes from having space to be bored. USA Today and our friends at the New York Times agree with Adams that we need freedom from relentless distraction, but they both dispute Adams’ idea that boredom, on its own, can ever be good.

“Boredom is the brain’s way to tell you you should be doing something else,” says Gary Marcus, a professor of psychology at N.Y.U.

Photo of bored students in a classroom

“Boredom is an agonizing, restless desire to be connected with something meaningful,” says John D. Eastwood, an associate professor of psychology at York University in Ontario, Canada.

Blaise Pascal had a provocative proposal 350 years ago about how to resolve the tension between our need for uninterrupted personal space and the tendency for it to devolve into boredom. After leaving behind his career as defensibly the greatest scientist of the seventeenth century in order to write his meaning-of-life Pensées, he began his argument with this statement: “All [of our] miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.” Along with Adams, what’s bad to him is our need for continual distraction. (The distraction that most engaged his attention was fox-hunting, but his argument seems on point in the smartphone era.)

Pascal's way through this tension came by looking in more depth at our experience of aloneness. If we’re truly alone, he wondered, perhaps we have no choice but to distract ourselves, because even the most introverted among us are, in the end, social creatures—as our addiction to social media reveals.

His resolution anticipated quantum physics by wondering if the universe itself is more interactive than we understand. "The least movement is of importance to all nature,” he wrote. “The entire ocean is affected by a pebble." So, then, our way forward is to live in interaction even in these still moments, to listen to the world around us. “Those honor nature well… teach that she can speak on everything.”

So, to sum up: We need undistracted alone time. But we need interactivity in those times—otherwise we’re intolerably alone and we’ll reach for the electric shock button.

I worked that idea hard in the month away from my job. Pascal applied his observations to God and prayer and meditation, as if the secret sauce was not so much the prayer or meditation itself as it was the kind of free-flowing interaction (mirroring what we see in nature itself) within the prayer or meditation.

And so I used my time off to study great prayer and meditation practices, with an eye towards Pascal’s view of an interactive world. In the process I stumbled into a point of view that God-or-the-Universe might always be speaking, and the only relevant question was if we were tuning in—almost as if we were fiddling with an old-time radio as we looked to get a clear signal. I worked this insight, starting with sophisticated tactics along the lines of, “Hi there . . . oh . . . I guess . . . Universe. What’s up?”

Faltering as those early Pascalian attempts were, I now wonder if my podcast-listening walks reflect how crowded my life has become and how out of shape I am at tuning in.

 “In an environment where we are constantly overstimulated,” Professor Eastwood told the New York Times, “it’s hard to find ways to engage when the noise shuts down.”

What’s interesting is that when “the noise shuts down” we might find we are not alone.

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