Matthew writes, "A new paper in Science reports that when people are asked to entertain themselves with their own thoughts for 15 minutes, many resort to giving themselves painful electric shocks they'd previously said they'd pay to avoid."
The paper, Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mind, summarizes 11 studies conducted by Timothy Wilson (University of Virginia) and colleagues. The researchers say this has nothing to do with attention spans that have been foreshortened by the Internet.
Wilson favors the "scanner hypothesis": Mammals have evolved to monitor their environments for dangers and opportunities, and so focusing completely internally for several minutes is unnatural. "It would be a little odd to see a chimpanzee posed like Rodin's thinker for extended periods of time," he said.
To test the idea, Wilson and his collaborators gave some subjects just a bit of external distraction—a rubber band to fidget with. In other experiments, they told some subjects to monitor a computer screen that would occasional display relevant messages. Compared to enjoyment in the regular thinking task, these alternatives had muddled results—sometimes they led to more enjoyment, sometimes less, sometimes the same amount. Discussing the scanner hypothesis, Wilson noted that the researchers don't yet have strong evidence, but, he said, "I'm convinced it's correct." Anecdotally, reverie's not so hard when you're exercising or knitting or staring out the window.
In addition to chasing the scanner hypothesis, Wilson's team hopes to see if practice makes the task easier. They did find a small correlation between meditation experience and ability to entertain oneself, and they suggest that control over one's thoughts may be one appeal of meditation. "I suspect that a little practice with just thinking pleasant thoughts in one form or another could work too," Wilson offered, before laughing. "As I say that, it sounds sort of audacious to say, well, the Buddhists have had two thousand years of mediation training, but I can train people to do it easier. We certainly haven't succeeded in doing it yet. This is something I want to test."
People Prefer Electric Shocks to Being Alone With Their Thoughts [Matthew Hutson/The Atlantic]