"The mind is its own place, and in it self / Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n," John Milton wrote in "Paradise Lost." It seems the English poet was at least half right.
In a new study, people who were asked to spend a few minutes alone with their thoughts disliked it so much that they would zap themselves with electricity during their alone time.
The experiments detailed in the journal Science hint at a fraught relationship with inward-directed thought, an ability the study authors call an "integral part – perhaps even a defining part – of what makes us human."
Tuning out the world around you and thinking about the past or imagining the future is (as far as we know) a uniquely human trait. But scientists at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville wanted to prove whether this was actually an enjoyable experience.
They set up six experiments where they asked college students to spend between six to 15 minutes in a bare room entertaining themselves with their own thoughts – with no cellphone, books or distractions. More than half, 57.5%, indicated that it was difficult to concentrate, 89% admitted that their mind wandered at least a little, and 49.3% indicated they didn't enjoy the experience very much.
To make sure the laboratory setting wasn't the problem, the researchers then had college students spend time with their thoughts from the comfort of their own homes. Nearly a third, 32%, admitted that they had "cheated" – doing something like checking their cellphones or listening to music. On average, they seemed to enjoy it even less at home than they did in the lab – which, the authors wrote, suggests "that just thinking is no easier at home than it is in the laboratory."
The problem wasn't unique to college students. The researchers then pulled participants from a local church and farmers' market from age 18 to 77 to do the at-home experiment, and the results still held.
But how unpleasant is it, really, to be alone with your thoughts? To find out, the researchers gave study participants the same instructions – to spend time with their thoughts – but before the experiment, they asked them to rate certain positive stimuli (attractive photographs) and negative stimuli (small electric shocks). They were asked, if given $5, how much they'd pay to experience or avoid each stimulus again.
But during the thinking time, people still chose to electrically shock themselves rather than be alone with their thoughts for 15 minutes. A full 67% of men who previously rated the shocks as unpleasant – so unpleasant that they would actually pay money to avoid them – still chose to zap themselves at least once during that period. (One man apparently shocked himself 190 times, and was treated as an outlier.) And 25% of women who said they'd pay to avoid the shocks also voluntarily subjected themselves to the electric sting.
"The gender difference is probably due to the tendency for men to be higher in sensation-seeking," the authors wrote. "But what is striking is that simply being alone with their own thoughts for 15 minutes was apparently so aversive that it drove many participants to self-administer an electric shock that they had earlier said they would pay to avoid."
Certainly, they authors write, people can enjoy looking inward – daydreaming, fantasizing, coming up with interesting ideas. But minds are difficult to control, they point out, and may be a challenge to keep steering them in positive directions. That could be why people seek out techniques like meditation, to rein in the unruly thoughts.
But if slightly more than half of the participants seemed to dislike being alone with their thoughts, it means that nearly half of participants didn't dislike it, said Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a neuroscientist and psychologist at the University of Southern California who was not involved in the paper.
Immordino-Yang pointed out that while this study sought to eliminate any distracting influences, daydreaming actually often arises when there are plenty of potential distractions – when part of the mind is occupied, perhaps by the view from a bus window or the white noise of conversation at a cafe. And in daily life, humans don't treat such inward thinking like a task that needs to be started and stopped.
"There's something spontaneous about daydreaming that you're overriding, and it's somehow taking the enjoyment out of it," she said.