Study: Electric Shocks Beat Being Alone With Your Thoughts
"You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something," comedian Louis C.K. said last September in a now-infamous interview with Conan O'Brien. Turns out, his rant about our inability to be alone with just our thoughts is more true than we thought: A recent study found people prefer electric shocks than being alone in a room with only their thoughts for company. The study, published in the journal Science, is certainly an eye-opener about our present-day, hyper-stimulated world of smartphones and Twitter feeds.
To test whether or not being are able to be alone with nothing to do — and how well they enjoy it — researchers from the University of Virginia placed participants alone in a room for six to 15 minutes over the course of 11 experiments. What they found was shocking — literally.
According to the researchers, many participants preferred to administer electric shocks to their bodies than just sit there and think about their thoughts. "Most people seem to prefer to be doing something rather than nothing, even if that something is negative," the researchers wrote.
Who are these people who would rather mildly electrocute themselves than ponder the nature of their existence? According to the researchers, it's men: In one study, 67 percent of men gave themselves at least one shock, compared to just 25 percent of female participants. Overall, 58 percent of participants found sitting and thinking to be at least a "somewhat" difficult task.
The researchers concluded that thinking these days is just too damn scary for most people:
We need never be alone, with no one to talk to and nothing to do. Wilson et al. explored the state of being alone with one's thoughts and found that it appears to be an unpleasant experience.
But why is it so terrible to be alone and undistracted these days? After all, humans have been without social media, TV and other technological distractions for thousands of years. Have we gotten too reliant on external distractions that the thought of our...well...thoughts are just too much to handle?
Unfortunately, the researchers don't really have the answers to these questions — only speculation. This is one of their possible theories:
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 so unpleasant that they would normally pay to avoid it.The untutored mind does not like to be alone with itself.
These results were pretty surprising to the researchers. According to the study's lead author, Timothy Wilson, they did not expect for sitting alone in a room to be this unpleasant.
"[We had] the expectation, to be honest, that it wouldn’t be that hard," Wilson told The Atlantic. "We kind of thought, well, we have this huge brain that’s stocked full of pleasant memories and has the ability to generate fantasies, and surely it can’t be that hard to spend a few minutes enjoying yourself with your thoughts. And we just kept doing study after study finding that — for many people, anyway — not so much.”
So, maybe happy thoughts and memories are the keys to being alone. Or, we could all just take a tip from Louis C.K.: put away our smartphones, drive down the highways listening to Bruce Springsteen and cry. "Just be sad," said C.K. "Just let the sadness, stand in the way of it, and let it hit you like a truck.'"