it hurts when I think

Perhaps you have seen this recent Science article (the paywall article itself or an Guardian piece on it.) If you haven’t, this is a psychological study where participants are left alone with their thoughts for 6-15 minutes and then asked questions about the experience. The conclusion? Generally people do not enjoy being alone with their thoughts. The article got attention though because the researchers gave participants the option of shocking themselves, and a good number of them, especially men, chose to do so. As Wilson et al note, “what is striking is that simply being alone with their own thoughts for 15 min was apparently so aversive that it drove many participants to self-administer an electric shock that they had earlier said they would pay to avoid.”

I will not pretend expertise, but having engaged in zazen meditation over the years, it doesn’t really surprise me that people don’t enjoy being alone with their thoughts. In this kind of meditation the objective is not to not think, which isn’t really possible, but rather to not hold onto thoughts. In my experience (and I imagine yours), the unpleasantness of thinking comes from holding on to thoughts (or perhaps their holding on to you). As I understand it, this kind of mindfulness training is fundamentally about letting go. The researchers arrived a similar conclusion, writing

There is no doubt that people are sometimes absorbed by interesting ideas, exciting fantasies, and pleasant daydreams. Research has shown that minds are difficult to control, however, and it may be particularly hard to steer our thoughts in pleasant directions and keep them there. This may be why many people seek to gain better control of their thoughts with meditation and other techniques, with clear benefits. Without such training, people prefer doing to thinking, even if what they are doing is so unpleasant that they would normally pay to avoid it. The untutored mind does not like to be alone with itself.

One might argue that the mind is never “alone with itself.” There’s only more or less stimulation. In this study, the participant is sitting on a chair for instance. One might mention air or gravity, but language is the key outsider from my perspective. My inclination would not be to characterize the participants minds as untrained or untutored but to the contrary as specifically trained to “prefer doing to thinking” where “thinking” is narrowly defined as mental activity that is detached from any apparent stimulation/sensation or a particular immediate objective.

In the disciplinary terms of cognitive science and psychology, what we are talking about here is the brain’s “default network,” which is sometimes described as the brain idling or as mind-wandering but is also suggested as the means by which the brain considers the past and future or imagines other people’s mental states. It is, perhaps, our internal self-reflection: the internal mental state that we imagine other’s similarly have. And really what this study is suggesting is that this internal world is generally not all that pleasant. Perhaps it’s a good thing that navel-gazing doesn’t feel that good. Even though we value self-reflection and mindfulness, we wouldn’t want to find ourselves drawn inward as toward a delicious treat.

An article like this attracts attention in part because of the details of participants shocking themselves but also because of our increasing moralizing over media and attention. It feeds our supposition that we have become so dependent on media stimulation that we are losing ourselves. Actually I don’t think the article is making any kind of cultural-historical argument. There are some cultural assumptions here, specifically those who are tutored to be alone with their thoughts would get different results, but there isn’t a value suggesting that there is something wrong with not enjoying this experience. We just bring that morality to the findings.

Whether we are talking about deep breathing exercises, some more developed meditative practice, language, or an iphone, these are all technologies. Even when we are in that default mental mode, we are still in a hybridized, nature/culture, technological, distributed network of thinking. The condition of being “alone” is relative not absolute.


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