July 3, 2014 at 2:07 PM ET
Maybe you can’t go to bed, or even the bathroom, without your phone. Or maybe you come home from work and immediately check email, turn on the TV or hit “play” on the stereo.
If you’re like most of us, you get—some might say, need—constant outside stimulation. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a moment alone with your thoughts?
Actually, maybe not. A study out Thursday from the University of Virginia found that many people are so uncomfortable with quiet contemplation that many of them – and especially men – would rather experience minor electrical shocks than spend time alone with their thoughts.
One of the researchers, psychology Professor Timothy D. Wilson, noted that while there had been many studies on how the mind wanders, most tested the brains of people reading books. He wondered what would happen when people had nothing to distract them from themselves. So he put his subjects in an otherwise empty room with nothing to read, look at or hear for six to 15 minutes.
The subjects—who were men and women ranging in age from 18 to 77—were nearly uniform in their intense discomfort. “Not everyone hated it,” Wilson says. But most did. So Wilson changed up the experiment and had people perform it at home, extracting promises that they would turn off their ringers, TVs and all electronic devices.
“They liked it even less,” he says. “In fact, many people told us they cheated.”
So Wilson and his team enlisted their colleague, Dr. James Coan, who had a lab equipped with a shock machine. “It’s nothing fancier than a box a box with a nine-volt battery in it,” Wilson explained, and it produces a mild shock about the same as a zap of static electricity.
Much to the researchers’ surprise, many of the participants preferred getting zapped to sitting quietly with their thoughts. “We put them in a room by themselves with an electrode attached to their ankle. They were told to spend their time entertaining themselves with their thoughts, but were also told they could give themselves a little shock if they wanted,” he said. A computer recorded whether or not participants shocked themselves and incredibly, 12 out of 18 males did so. “We had given them a sample shock earlier, so they knew what to expect.”
These results didn’t surprise New York City-based psychotherapist Teri Cole. “Being on social media all the time, having your phone be the first thing you do in the morning . . . people are endlessly self-soothing in the moment,” she said.
It certainly can be annoying to be out with a person who’s constantly checking their phone, but is there any real harm in it? Maybe. Psychotherapist Paula Carino considers alone time all important.
“It’s essential to our well-being because that quiet time is when we learn to tolerate difficult feelings and thoughts and learn that we don't have to be so reactive,” she said. Quiet moments can help us “become much more attuned to the beauty that's right here, rather than escaping into some dopamine-fueled fantasy world.”
Cole agrees. “Whether it’s a concert or an amazing meal—if you’re on your phone the whole time, will you have that same memory?” she asks. “It doesn’t just impact the moment itself, it impacts our ability to gain intelligence, to experience that things that change ourselves as humans. We’re diluting them—making them ‘experience-lite.’”
Wilson says his research into quiet time has many practical applications. “There are lots of times during our daily lives when we’re having to wait at DMV, or stuck in traffic, when would be a good thing to retreat into our own minds and not be stressed,” he says. “One of our goals is to teach people how to use this in their every day lives and enjoy it.”
How does Wilson suggest we learn to be one with ourselves? “Well, that’s the million-dollar question,” he says. “We’re testing the hypothesis that maybe it’s easier to do with a little bit of engagement, because people tell us that the times when they daydream is when they’re doing something else, like walking or driving.”
Cole and Carino recommend meditation for their clients, and indeed Wilson pointed out that research subjects who already practiced meditation had a much easier time with the experiment. Studies have shown that along with improving one’s powers of concentration, meditation also lowers blood pressure and revs up your immune system.
“This isn’t kumbaya,” laughs Cole. “It’s real.”