Wandering thoughts: More uncomfortable than physical pain?


If you had the choice of sitting alone with only your thoughts as company, or experiencing pain, what would you choose? In a study published recently in Science, researchers show that most people would choose the latter, preferring to give themselves mild electric shocks than having to endure their own thoughts, when sitting alone in a room for 15 minutes.

Directed, conscious thought is one the defining characteristics that makes us human. This ability, allows us to travel within our minds and remember the past, dream about the future and imagine things that have never existed. But, is the thought process one that people choose to engage in?  And when they do, is it a pleasant experience? These, and more, are questions psychologists at the University of Virginia and Harvard strove to answer, in a study published recently in Science magazine.

To tackle these questions, the researchers carried out studies where college-student participants were required to spend time alone in an empty room, for 6 to 15 minutes, depending on the study. During this time, they were asked to entertain themselves with their thoughts, in the absence of phones and other belongings. They were then asked to discuss their experience, by answering questions on how enjoyable it was and how hard it was to concentrate. The conclusion from these studies was that, in general, most participants found it hard to concentrate and their minds wandered, even though there was nothing present to distract them. It seemed that, on average, participants did not seem to enjoy the experience very much.

Thinking that the laboratory environment made it difficult for participants to relax, become lost in and enjoy their thoughts, the scientists then asked students to conduct the same experiment at home, where they would be alone, in a more familiar and relaxing environment. Many participants found this task hard to complete, since 32% reported that they had cheated and engaged in other activities, like listening to music or using their cell phones. Furthermore, there was no evidence showing that the participants enjoyed this experience more than when they were in the laboratory.

Would giving the participants something to do, besides thinking, make them happier?

These intriguing results prompted scientists to hypothesize that maybe the participants would be happier and enjoy themselves more, if they had something specific to do. Indeed, when the students were assigned certain activities, such as reading a book or listening to music, they enjoyed themselves much more, since their minds tended to wander less.

In order to see if the difficulties they were observing with ‘just thinking’ was a special characteristic of college students, or, if it was a more widespread phenomenon, scientists then performed similar experiments with people recruited from a farmer’s market and the local church. With these studies, they observed similar results, showing that enjoyment of the thinking period was not affected by variables like age, gender, income, or education.

What appeared to be the conclusion from all the above experiments, was that sitting alone thinking in a room, was generally an uncomfortable experience for most people, regardless of where they came from. But just how uncomfortable was the thinking period? To answer this question, in the next experiment, scientists gave participants a small electric shock that was so unpleasant for them, most were willing to pay not to experience it again. However, when placing these same people in an empty room alone with their thoughts and the only option of ‘entertainment’ being to give themselves a mild electric shock by pushing a button, 67% of males and 25% of females were so set on finding something to do that they started giving themselves electric shocks!

Why is it so difficult and unpleasant to sit alone with our own thoughts?

Scientists hypothesized that with a lack of anything else to do, study participants tended to focus only on the negative components of themselves. People that are ‘daydreamers’ and focus on thinking about positive past and future experiences are the only ones that seemed to be at peace with spending time with themselves.  Furthermore, for some participants it was difficult to enjoy their thoughts because in order to have an enjoyable experience, they had to not only choose a topic to think about, but also take that string of thought in an enjoyable direction. According to Malia Mayson, a psychologist at Colombia Univerity in New York, the participants may have had an easier time driving their thoughts in an enjoyable direction if they had been instructed to choose a topic and come up with a plan of where to take their thoughts, before the experiment. She believes that providing a topic to people is not enough, they also need a direction to go in. Timothy Wilson, a psychologist and lead investigator in this study, plans to pursue ways that could help people tame the 'wandering mind', with hope that these methods could help people relax and reduce stress, when they have some time out alone to think.



Wilson, T. D. et al. Science 345, 7577 (2014).


Image copyright: dolgachov, thinkstock

Article last time updated on 18.07.2014.

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