People Prefer Electric Shocks to Being Alone With Their Thoughts

Considering the many challenges life has to offer, entertaining yourself with your own thoughts for a few minutes seems like one of the easier hurdles to overcome. You could recall your favorite childhood memory, plan your weekend, or try to solve a problem from work. But it turns out that people find this assignment incredibly hard. And, according to new research, they’ll even resort to giving themselves electric shocks to keep themselves entertained.

“We, like everyone else, noticed how wedded people seem to be to modern technology, and seem to shy away from just using their own thoughts to occupy themselves,” the lead researcher, Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia, told me. “That got us to wondering whether this said something fundamental about people’s ability to do this.”

“We have this huge brain stocked full of pleasant memories and the ability to generate fantasies—surely it can’t be that hard to spend a few minutes enjoying yourself with your thoughts.”

“So we started out just kind of by the seat of our pants trying stuff to see how easy it was for people to entertain themselves with their own thoughts,” he went on. “With the expectation, to be honest, that it wouldn’t be that hard. We kind of thought, well, we have this huge brain that’s stocked full of pleasant memories and has the ability to generate fantasies, and surely it can’t be that hard to spend a few minutes enjoying yourself with your thoughts. And we just kept doing study after study finding that—for many people, anyway—not so much.”