This topic was recently brought up by atheist Sam Harris on the Joe Rogan Podcast. According to a study published in Science, entertaining yourself with your own thoughts may be incredibly difficult. It turns out, most people prefer to do something rather than nothing, even if that something is negative, like receiving electro shocks.
To conduct the study, Timothy Wilson, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and colleagues recruited hundreds of undergraduate student volunteers and community members to take part in “thinking periods.” They report on 11 experiments. Individuals were placed in sparsely furnished rooms and asked to put away their belongings, such as cell phones and pens. They then were given one of two tests that lasted between 6 and 15 minutes. While some were told to think about whatever they wanted, others chose from several prompts, such as going out to eat or playing a sport, and planned out how they would think about it during the period.
Over the first six studies, 58 percent of participants rated the difficulty at or above the midpoint on a scale (“somewhat”), and 42 percent rated their enjoyment below the midpoint. In the seventh study, participants completed the task at home, and 32 percent admitted to cheating by using their phones, listening to music, or doing anything but just sitting there. (In the lab studies, one participant’s data was tossed because an experimenter had accidentally left a pen behind and the subject used it to write a to-do list. Another’s was tossed because an instruction sheet had been left behind and he used it to practice origami.)
Participants rated the task of entertaining themselves with their own thoughts as far less enjoyable and more conducive to mind-wandering than other mellow activities such as reading magazines or doing crossword puzzles.
Subjects were then wired up and given the chance to shock themselves during the thinking period if they desired. They’d all had a chance to try out the device to see how painful it was. And yet, even among those who said they would pay money not to feel the shock again, a quarter of the women and two-thirds of the men gave themselves a zap when left with their own thoughts. One outlier pressed the button 190 times in the 15 minutes. Commenting on the sudden appeal of electricity coursing through one’s body, Wilson said, “I’m still just puzzled by that.”
Because people so often find themselves intentionally or unintentionally wrapped up in their thoughts, the research team suggests that meditation or other techniques to relax and learn how to gain control of the mind could be helpful. If we knew how to steer our thoughts in a pleasant direction and enjoy the experience, maybe we wouldn’t hate to be alone with ourselves.
Personally, I prefer praying and think it is infinitely more effective than a meditation practice of any kind.