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Tuesday, July 8, 2014

We Just Can't Stand Ourselves

Posted by on Tue, Jul 8, 2014 at 11:44 AM

In the past few years, I've been increasingly curious about the illusion of "free time" (which Adorno says is merely a trick we play on ourselves to pretend we're not at all moments either producing, consuming, or preparing ourselves to produce and consume) and "radically free time" (a kind of do-nothing state that is difficult for me to even imagine), so this study caught my attention:

Most people are just not comfortable in their own heads, according to a new psychological investigation led by the University of Virginia.

The investigation found that most would rather be doing something – possibly even hurting themselves – than doing nothing or sitting alone with their thoughts, said the researchers, whose findings will be published July 4 in the journal Science.

In a series of 11 studies, U.Va. psychologist Timothy Wilson and colleagues at U.Va. and Harvard University found that study participants from a range of ages generally did not enjoy spending even brief periods of time alone in a room with nothing to do but think, ponder or daydream. The participants, by and large, enjoyed much more doing external activities such as listening to music or using a smartphone. Some even preferred to give themselves mild electric shocks than to think...

The period of time that Wilson and his colleagues asked participants to be alone with their thoughts ranged from six to 15 minutes. Many of the first studies involved college student participants, most of whom reported that this "thinking period" wasn't very enjoyable and that it was hard to concentrate. So Wilson conducted another study with participants from a broad selection of backgrounds, ranging in age from 18 to 77, and found essentially the same results.

"That was surprising – that even older people did not show any particular fondness for being alone thinking," Wilson said.

This equality of distraction across generations led Wilson and his team to conclude that smartphones, iPods, and the rest of our gadgets aren't decreasing our attention span (as the old fogies like to say). They're just the fulfillment of our deep desire to do something—anything—other than sit still and experience ourselves thinking.

The study also found that men were more prone to give themselves that electric shock, presumably because their brains are hungrier for sensations and experiences. But that's just an extreme symptom of a condition that crosses the gender spectrum: We're deeply distracted creatures, and it takes work—actual effort—to be comfortable in our own consciousness.

Looks like Adorno was on to something.

Many thanks to prolific Slog tipper Greg.


Comments (9) RSS

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"thinking" and "thoughts" are quite vague in this work, as far as I can tell from the article. If a person doesn't have something to think about - that is, to engage with, then sitting is quite hard. I'd be very interested to know what the participants did in their heads that they called "thinking" or "alone with my thoughts." Our minds are very good at engaging, even engaging in a relaxing or restful phase. But even meditating summons a point of focus. The results do not surprise me. It's hard to learn to shut everything off and just relax. I am guessing that the participants just never learned to entertain themselves in their own heads.
Posted by LuisitaPhD on July 8, 2014 at 11:59 AM · Report this
delirian 2
I don't have any problem with Brendan's write up here, but I kinda wish Mudede was the one to analyze this post. What would he have thought about this? What kind of thoughts would go around in his brain (as long as he wasn't distracted with his war on cars) about the thoughts that go on in other people's brains? Even better, put Mudede in a room with an electric shock device and watch what he does. Then do a second test with a toy car and see if he ends up smashing it. For science!
Posted by delirian on July 8, 2014 at 12:11 PM · Report this
dnt trust me 3
Adorno is a navel gazer
Posted by dnt trust me on July 8, 2014 at 12:19 PM · Report this
"It would be better if I could only stop thinking. Thoughts are the dullest thing. Duller than flesh." I came across this quote by Sartre just after reading this post.
Posted by Butch on July 8, 2014 at 1:01 PM · Report this
Some people actually listen to music while thinking. It's actually a thing you can do. Being alone with one's thoughts is fine too, but the presence of external stimuli does not immediately shut down your ability to self-reflect.
Posted by Jizzlobber on July 8, 2014 at 2:43 PM · Report this
@2. This is the only reason anyone reads Mundede. They are so tortured by the vacuum in their heads that they'll let the most jejune material in.
Posted by MikeB on July 8, 2014 at 2:43 PM · Report this
I don't really see the results of this study as it's been interpreted. If it were me, I'd be bored out of my mind. I'd reason whatever shock I was going to get couldn't permanently injure me or anything, so why not fucking try because I have nothing else to do.
That doesn't make me less comfortable with my own thoughts, that just makes me desperately bored.
Posted by The CHZA on July 8, 2014 at 7:24 PM · Report this
Ipso Facto 9
Why don't they just talk to the voices in their head like a normal person?

That's normal, right? George says it's normal. Thanks George.
Posted by Ipso Facto on July 9, 2014 at 1:48 AM · Report this
Posted by stu ungar on July 10, 2014 at 2:59 PM · Report this

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