Thursday, July 10, 2014

The untutored mind does not like to be alone with itself.

Our mammalian brains evolved to physically engage the world in the interest of our survival and passing on genes. Humans are distinctive among animals in being able to disengage, and some meditation techniques train just such disengagement. A recent collaboration including Daniel Gilbert (see "A wandering mind is an unhappy mind.") makes the interesting observation that not only is disengagement difficult for most people, some, if asked to just sit in a room and do nothing (with a nine volt battery the only entertainment provided), prefer to electrically shock themselves rather than be deprived of external sensory stimuli!
In 11 studies, we found that participants typically did not enjoy spending 6 to 15 minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think, that they enjoyed doing mundane external activities much more, and that many preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves instead of being left alone with their thoughts. Most people seem to prefer to be doing something rather than nothing, even if that something is negative.

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