TORONTO — Take away your phone, laptop, TV, books and the radio. How long would you last alone with just your thoughts to entertain you?
Leave people alone to sit idly in a room without their gadgets to distract them and some may resort to giving themselves electrical shocks — at least that’s what happened within 15 minutes of solitude in a new U.S. study.
University of Virginia researchers suggest that their findings illustrate just how uncomfortable people are in their own heads. To some of us, doing something — even if its painful — is better than doing nothing.
“What is striking,” the scientists write, “is that simply being alone with their own thoughts for 15 minutes 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.”
The researchers carried out their study in a series of 11 tests, with nearly 800 subjects from college graduates to senior citizens.
It’s a simple task: sit alone in a bare lab room, without your phone, any books, or writing materials. Stay awake — you can think and daydream as much as you please.
Across the board, young or old, participants didn’t care for what the researchers dubbed the “thinking period” that lasted about six to 15 minutes. They couldn’t even concentrate.
“That was surprising – that even older people did not show any particular fondness for being alone thinking,” Wilson said.
When the scientists told the participants to do the same task at home, most admitted they cheated and went back to their phones, listening to music or abandoning the thinking space.
Finally, a segment of the group said they would pay to avoid being shocked. But once they were left in the “thinking period” room, their pain threshold seemed to strengthen. Without anything else to do, some of the participants self-administered electronic shocks to themselves by pressing a button.
Twelve out of 18 men shocked themselves at least once within 15 minutes. Six of 24 women did the same. One person did it 190 times.
It may be because men crave “sensations” more than women, the authors wrote, which may explain why 67 per cent of men shocked themselves compared to only 25 per cent of women.
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Why people would rather resort to electrical shocks is unclear, though. The researchers guess that while we like to daydream and contemplate, we prefer to do so spontaneously instead of being put on the spot.
“The mind is designed to engage with the world,” lead researcher Dr. Timothy Wilson said in a press release. “Even when we are by ourselves, our focus usually is on the outside world. And without training in meditation or thought-control techniques, which still are difficult, most people would prefer to engage in external activities.”
The full findings were published Friday in the journal Science.
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