People prefer electric shocks to being alone with their thoughts

Electric_shockI somehow missed this earlier in the month, but our friends at Boing Boing posted a link to this great little story. It’s about a study performed at the University of Virginia which aimed to measure how good people are at entertaining themselves. The answer? Not so good. From the story:

“They report on 11 experiments. In most, they asked participants to put away any distractions and entertain themselves with their own thoughts for 6 to 15 minutes. Over the first six studies, 58 percent of participants rated the difficulty at or above the midpoint on a scale (“somewhat”), and 42 percent rated their enjoyment below the midpoint. In the seventh study, participants completed the task at home, and 32 percent admitted to cheating by using their phones, listening to music, or doing anything but just sitting there.”

In one experiment, the researchers even gave the participants an option to shock themselves with an electrical device if they wished to. One participant shocked himself 190 times in 15 minutes!

So, why did these people find it so hard to entertain themselves? At least one of the researchers hesitated to blame technology and instead had a theory, unproven as yet, about our hunter-gatherer brains being wired to scan for danger at all times and so not be still and peaceful.

I recently entertained the Beloved by explaining to him what exactly I think about before bed to help me fall asleep. He was stunned that I had to think about anything—apparently, he just lies down and falls asleep—but when he heard how detailed my pre-sleep entertainment was, he was all the more stunned. So I am not convinced about the hunter-gatherer theory—but since I have never had much trouble entertaining myself when I needed to, so I guess I am the outlier in this research.

3 Comments on People prefer electric shocks to being alone with their thoughts

  1. As someone who is old enough to be pre-Internet, pre-videos in the car, pre-technology outside the home and very little in the home, I’ve never had problems entertaining myself, and I’m perfectly comfortable without any form of technology-created “noise” around me.

    I don’t know anyone of my generation or close to my generation who needs the stimulation that the younger set does.

    Silence and an inner life are very important elements of my creativity, and I wonder where that creativity will come from in the future. How will anyone have informed and thoughtful opinions on important issues?

    That element of the future scares me.

  2. MarylandBill // July 21, 2014 at 3:06 pm //

    While I think modern technology has generally reduced people’s tolerance for silence, I think it is a little glib to assume that most people even prior to the internet could handle long periods of silence without any external stimulation. Lets recall, that literally the only stimulation (other than pressing a button to shock themselves) that was available to the participants was their mind. Not just no TV, internet or music, but no books, paper, pens, etc.

    They might do fine if they have a specific task in front of them (like say writing, hunting or plowing a field), but the number of people who have been suited to perfect silence and mindfulness has always been a very small minority of the population.

    I am also not quite as confident of the older generation. My father-in-law, a man in his 60s literally needs to have a radio playing when he goes to bed at night. I also find it is rare that I walk into any home (regardless of how old the owner) without seeing a TV, computer or radio on, and even in the case of exceptions, books, magazines or writing are commonly in evidence.

    This is also strongly suggested by the fact that amongst those Catholics who choose religious vocations, the popularity of the vocation tends to be in inverse proportion to the silence and solitude that the order embraces (This despite the fact that reading and other activities are frequently available to even the strictest monastics).

  3. I belong to the pre-video and pre-internet generations even though I ended up a computer programmer. Just a few nights ago, I was getting nostalgic for my pre-gadget life. I find thoughts of a quiet, technology free time rather soothing.

    A few years ago, I was looking I into staying a silent retreat. You pay for a week or weekend at a place were you bring nothing but yourself and aren’t allowed to talk to the other guests. They were all religious (Christian) places so I decided not to go. Maybe a cabin in the woods.

Leave a Reply

wordpress analytics