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.