Study sheds light on why people visit MyUMBC
You'd rather be shocked than do nothing.
Why Is It So Hard For Us To Do Nothing?
From the Wall Street Journal, July 18, 2014
It is summer time, and the living is easy. You can, at last, indulge in what is surely the most enjoyable of human activities—doing absolutely nothing. But is doing nothing really enjoyable? A new study in the journal Science shows that many people would rather get an electric shock than just sit and think.
Neuroscientists have inadvertently discovered a lot about doing nothing. In brain-imaging studies, people lie in a confined metal tube feeling bored as they wait for the actual experiment to start. Fortuitously, neuroscientists discovered that this tedium was associated with a distinctive pattern of brain activity. It turns out that when we do nothing, many parts of the brain that underpin complex kinds of thinking light up.
When people lie in a tube with nothing else to do, they reminisce, reliving events in the past ("Damn it, that guy was rude to me last week"), or they plan what they will do in the future ("I'll snub him next time"). And they fantasize: "Just imagine how crushed he would have been if I'd made that witty riposte."
Though we take this kind of daydreaming for granted, it is actually a particularly powerful kind of thinking. Much more than any other animal, we humans have evolved the ability to live in our own thoughts, detached from the demands of our immediate actions and experiences.
Descartes had his most important insights sitting alone in a closet-sized stove, the only warm spot during a wintry Dutch military campaign. When someone asked Newton how he discovered the law of gravity, he replied, "By thinking on it continually." Doing nothing but thinking can be profound
But is it fun? Psychologist Tim Wilson of the University of Virginia and his colleagues asked college students to sit for 15 minutes in a plain room doing nothing but thinking. The researchers also asked them to record how well they concentrated and how much they enjoyed doing it. Most of the students reported that they couldn't concentrate; half of them actively disliked the experience.
Maybe that was because of what they thought about. "Rumination"—brooding on unpleasant experiences, like the guy who snubbed you—can lead to depression, even clinical depression. But the researchers found no difference based on whether people recorded positive or negative thoughts
Maybe it was something about the sterile lab room. But the researchers also got students just to sit and think in their own homes, and they disliked it even more. In fact, 32% of the students reported that they cheated, with a sneak peek at a cellphone or just one quick text.
But that's because they were young whippersnappers with Twitter-rotted brains, right? Wrong. The researchers also did the experiment with a middle-aged church group, and the results were the same. Age, gender, personality, social-media use—nothing made much difference.
But did people really hate thinking that much? The researchers gave students a mild electric shock and asked if they would pay to avoid another. The students sensibly said that they would. The researchers then put them back in the room with nothing to do but also gave them the shock button.
Amazingly, many of them voluntarily shocked themselves rather than doing nothing. Not so amazingly (at least to this mother of boys who played hockey), there was a big sex difference. Sixty-seven percent of the men preferred a shock to doing nothing, but only 25% of the women did.
Newton and neuroscience suggest that just thinking can be very valuable. Why is it so hard? It is easy to blame the modern world, but 1,000 years ago, Buddhist monks had the same problem. Meditation has proved benefits, but it takes discipline, practice and effort. Our animal impulse to be up and doing, or at least up and checking email, is hard to resist, even in a long, hazy cricket-song dream of a summer day.-Alison Gopnik