The challenge of being alone

Studies show humans are averse to being left with their thoughts

It is often said that man is a social animal — but just how far would we go to avoid being left alone with our thoughts? Psychology Prof. Dr. Timothy Wilson aims to get to the bottom of this issue.

Wilson’s research explores the subconscious mind. He recently conducted a series of 11 studies in which he tested people’s enjoyment during periods of solitary thought, or “default mode processing.” Participants were instructed to spend 6 to 15 minutes alone in a room doing nothing but thinking. They were afterwards asked about the level of pleasure they took in this activity.

“So far, we have seen that people do not enjoy ‘just thinking’ and clearly prefer having something else to do,” Wilson wrote in his 2014 publication, “Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mind.”

By and large, participants did not seem to enjoy letting their minds wander idly without an activity to occupy their attention. In one trial, participants were given the option to receive an electric shock as an alternative to default mode processing.

“Many participants elected to receive negative stimulation over no stimulation,” Wilson said, “Sixty-seven percent of men … gave themselves at least one shock during the thinking period.”

These findings may offer insight into the practices of solitary confinement.

Replicating default mode processing is an ongoing challenge for researchers — and researchers still do not fully understand this process.

“Initially, researchers were surprised that the brain was even active when there’s nothing else to do,” Wilson said. “Humans are the only species able to shut out the external world … but is this something people like or choose to do?”

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