In an age where multitasking is the way of life, and there are more internet-connected devices than people—which many people use even in the bathroom—people have forgotten how to do nothing. Our technology saves us from that sad end—as long as we’ve got smartphones, we’re safe from nothingness. Turns out, that nothingness is now so unappealing that a recent study conducted by scientists at the University of Virginia and Harvard shows that participants would rather shock themselves than be alone with their thoughts.
It sounds like an episode of the Simpsons, doesn’t it? An adaptation of the Milgram Experiment for the digital age. It sounds like it can’t possibly true, although of course it is. Science breaks down the study. Participants were asked to turn over their cellphones, other devices, books, notepads, or anything else they’d use as entertainment while not in the company of others. They then had to sit in a room for a little while—and I’m talking really a little while, only up to 15 minutes. They were simply supposed to sit, undistracted, and engage their thoughts. They could fantasize, or plan what to have for dinner, or think about how crazy science studies are—any and all thoughts were fair game, as long as they were the only means of “entertainment.” Needless to say, people weren’t keen on this endeavor.
In fact, they were so disgruntled by their distraction-less alone time that when the researchers gave them an alternative, they took it, even though that alternative was to shock themselves with a 9-volt battery. The scientists had reservations about giving the participants this option, but they never encouraged people to shock themselves. They warned the subjects that the battery would deliver a painful jolt, so they wondered whether subjects would actually shock themselves, and if so, why. Turns out, many subjects, including a majority of male subjects, opted for a self-administered shock over quiet time. When asked why, subjects most often responded that boredom and curiosity got to them.
University of Virginia study author Timothy Wilson says, “Our minds have evolved to a point where we do have this alternative; we’re the only animals that can turn off engagement and turn into our own heads. But we still have that mammalian brain that wants to engage.” It turns out, though, that engaging, and even thinking, become difficult in the absence of other stimuli. This makes sense to me—I have some of my best thoughts while walking, driving, or showering, rather than when I’m simply sitting around doing nothing.
The experiment was also replicated in subjects’ home. They were directed to find a time in which they weren’t busy or rushed, and they were asked to tuck all their devices away and just sit—again, for a short period of time, only 6-12 minutes. Most didn’t make it that long. Simply knowing that their devices were nearby drove them crazy, and they couldn’t resist. Perhaps it’s the accessibility that proves most problematic, like being unable to stop eating if there’s still food on the plate. But it seems our brains have adapted to constant engagement, for better or for worse, such that anything, even pain, is better than nothing.