Quiet Time Holds Little Appeal for Many of Us

New research suggests that the mind will take almost any opportunity to engage with the world.

If you relish a few minutes of solitude now and then, you are probably in the minority, new research suggests. Scientists asked a group of adults ranging in age from 18 to 77 to sit by themselves in a room for 12 minutes with nothing to entertain them but their own thoughts, and then to rate the experience on a scale of 1 to 9. The average rating among participants was an unenthusiastic 5, according to a paper published in the July 4, 2014 issue of the journal Science.

In a follow-up experiment, participants were exposed to a mild electric shock; 42 of 55 participants indicated they would pay to avoid a similar electric shock. The researchers then asked the same participants to sit alone in a room and think for 15 minutes, but gave them permission to push a button to shock themselves if they wished. A surprising 67 percent of the male participants and 25 percent of the female participants who had said they would pay to avoid the shock exercised the option to shock themselves rather than spend uneventful time with their thoughts. “Our study participants consistently demonstrated that they would rather have something to do than have nothing other than their thoughts for even a fairly brief period of time,” the study’s lead author said. “Even older people did not show any particular fondness for being alone thinking.” The researchers theorized that the mind is designed to be engaged with the world and tends to take any opportunity to do so, even when the experience is unpleasant.

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