The Power of a Lonely Mind

There are few times I sit, do nothing, and think. Have I ever purposefully scheduled a “thinking time” in my diary? No. Definitely not. Yet the ability to extract ourselves from our present surroundings and think about memories of the past, situations in the present, and possibilities of the future is the defining aspect of us being human, in comparison to other species. The ability to entertain inward-directed thought spurring neural activity is called default-mode processing. Intrigued by this ability of ours, scientists got to work trying to answer these two questions:

1. Do people choose to put themselves in default mode by disengaging from the external world?

2. Do people enjoy being in default mode?

What do you think happened?

11 studies turned out a potential, blunt result: NO.

Studies 1-6 had 146 students in the lab in an unadorned room with none of their belongings. Study 7 was conducted at the students own home, 44 students in total and study 8 was also conducted at home, yet with different instructions. The general rule for all however, was to sit for the duration (6-15 minutes depending on the study) and stay awake. The results are shown in the table below.  

The main takeaways are that in the lab over half of the participants said it was difficult to concentrate and the large majority said their mind wandered even though there was nothing competing for their attention. On average half did not enjoy the situation. Now that may be because you’re sitting alone in an unappealing lab room by yourself not really knowing what to do. So the scientists tried it out at the students own homes and found that the students actually enjoyed it less than in the lab, and more found it much more difficult to concentrate. Furthermore, about a third cheated by looking at their phones, listening to music or even getting up from their chair.

Of course -- you say -- they’re university students. Thinking? Out of the question! The scientists conducted the ninth study with normal people from the streets where the mean age was 48. The results were the same as for the uni students.

Turns out that people don’t like having nothing to do, who knew? But would they rather do something unpleasant rather than nothing? Study 10 was conducted in the lab with the same instructions with one key difference: participants could give themselves an electrical shock if they wanted rather than do nothing. Before going into the room, researchers told participants that they should try and enjoy their thoughts. The participants were told of the electric shock and all said they would pay not to have it. Yet once in the room, something amazing happened: about a quarter of the women shocked themselves. Like, willingly! "What about the men?" I hear you ask. The men were worse! Two thirds of them shocked themselves at least once. Two. Thirds. Hold on, there's more: one particularly bored chap shocked himself 190 times within the “thinking period!”

Why are people half-electrocuting themselves after explicitly saying that they would pay not to be shocked rather than simply sitting alone with their thoughts?! Are they negative thoughts? Are they ruminating on their own shortcomings?

We all have pleasant daydreams yet research has shown that it is difficult to control the mind. It’s a challenge to both steer our thoughts in pleasant directions and keep them there. Alas, the mind does not like to be alone with itself. It does make you wonder how much control we really have over our own behaviour. Our advice to these participants? Meditation disengages the default mode and would probably a good way to go through the exercise without indulging in electrical masochism!