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Can you simply sit alone quietly and think?

Image by jose aljovin

A very popular comment we've all heard: "I wish I had some time to myself - just a bit of time to stop and think!"

Timothy Wilson et al from the University of Virginia ran a series of experiments to determine if this is indeed the case.

  • 188 participants participated, from students to community members (ages from 18-77) 

  • They were asked to sit in a quiet room with no other personal belongings (e.g. handphones, books) for either 6 minutes or 15 minutes

  • Some of these sat in a quiet room at the school study lab, while others did so at home. 

What were the results?

Close to 60% of participants found it difficult to concentrate. 90% of participants found their minds wandering - unable to think. And on a 9 point scale of enjoyment, the average score was about 4.5 - generally, people did not find the experience enjoyable. 

3 variations were introduced to the study. The first 2 produced expected results:


  • What if people provided some topics they could think about? (e.g. what would you like to eat, what sport do you want to play etc). The participants don't need to necessarily pick the topics offered, but its an option if they couldn't think of anything.

    As you would expect, people were less distracted and their minds wandered less. However, they found this even less enjoyable than before, the average enjoyment score was 3.2 on a 9 point scale. 


  • What if participants were given one non-social object to engage in (e.g. a book to read, music to listen to, video clips to watch)?

    Again, pretty much as expected. People indicated they were less distracted and their minds wandered less. And they found having something to do much more enjoyable - 6.9 on a 9 point scale.

The third variation is the most interesting. What if instead of a topic or an object, the participant is provided something that is purely negative. 

What if the participant can either sit there and think, or administer an electric shock to him/herself? Who is the world would want to shock themselves? 

As it turns out, 67% of males and 25% of females chose to administer electric shocks to themselves rather than sit and think quietly. We seek external sensory stimuli so much that we would, from out of our own choice, choose a negative stimulus sit alone in our thoughts.  

Why does this happen? I quote the study team:

"There is no doubt that people are sometimes absorbed by interesting ideas, exciting fantasies, and pleasant daydreams. Research has shown that minds are difficult to control however, and it may be particularly hard to steer our thoughts in pleasant directions and keep them there. This may be why many people seek to gain better control of their thoughts with meditation and other techniques, with clear benefits. Without such training, people prefer doing to thinking, even if what they are doing is so unpleasant that they would normally pay to avoid it. The untutored mind does not like to be alone with itself."

Full paper here: 

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