This question came to mind while reading an article by Wilson and his colleagues in the Journal Science (July 2014 p. 75) titled “Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mind.” He notes that we humans “have the ability to sit and mentally detach ourselves from our surroundings and travel inward, recalling the past, envisioning the future , and imagining worlds that have never existed.” He reports the results of a survey of American adults found that 95% of the respondents that they did at least one leisure activity in the past 24 hours such as watching television, socializing, or reading for pleasure, but 83% reported that they spent no time whatsoever relaxing or thinking. I find the latter number astounding, and I am even somewhat skeptical of the percentage value, but I can believe that it is a large percentage. Why is this number so large? True, we are all busy, but to what end?
Wilson conducted a series of studies addressing this question. There were variants of the study, but the basic protocol was as follows: College level participants spent from 6 to15 minutes in an unadorned room after storing their belonging. They were asked to remain in their seats, stay awake, and entertain themselves with their thoughts. After this thinking period trying to entertain themselves with their thoughts they were asked how enjoyable the experience was, and how hard it was to concentrate. They rated their experience on a nine point scale. More than half, 57.5% being at or above the midpoint of the scale indicating that it was difficult to concentrate. They indicated that their mind wandered (89% being at or above the midpoint of the scale) even though there was nothing competing for their attention. Moreover, on average, participants did not enjoy the experience very much (49.3% being at or below the midpoint of the scale.
In another study, participants were asked to conduct the experiment in their home. The home study essentially replicated the college study, with perhaps even somewhat more pronounced effects. To generalize the results beyond college students they recruited additional participants at a farmer’s market and at a church. The results were successfully replicated with these samples. Additionally, no evidence was found that enjoyment of the thinking period was related to age, education, income, or the frequency with which they used smart phones or social media.
Sensory deprivation research, in which sensory inputs are largely precluded from research participants, have found that the participants will start hallucinating, that the human nervous system will generate internal activity to compensate from losses in external stimulation. Still it appears that most people do not like ‘just thinking” and like having something to do. The researchers asked the question how badly do they want something else to do. So participants were given the option of being able to administer electric shocks to themselves. Although the shocks were small, they were large enough to be unpleasant. The following results are restricted to those who reported that they would pay not to be shocked again. 67% of the men gave themselves at least one shock, whereas 25% of the women gave themselves electric shocks.
These results point to the need for mindfulness and meditation. The healthymemory blog has many posts documenting the benefits of meditation. Absent these practices it appears that the mind does not like to be alone with itself.
West begins the article with a quote from John Milton’s Paradise Lost.
“The mind is its own place, and in it self?
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.”
So it’s up to us whether we make a Heaven or Hell.
So meditate and be mindful.
© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.