The terrifying idea of being left alone with yourself

Updated: Feb 1, 2019

You're sitting in a room on your own. The researchers took your bag, your phone and emptied your pockets of anything you could use to distract yourself. You are not allowed to get up from your seat, and you're not allowed to doze off. You've been told to entertain yourself - for 15 minutes - with your own thoughts. But there's no clock.

There is a computer keyboard next to you and it's connected to the shock electrodes which the researcher attached to your ankle. If you press the number 5 on the keyboard you will give yourself a mild electric shock.

You already know what the electric shock feels like because you were given a number of different stimuli before this part of the experiment. Some of them were pleasant: guitar music, a colour photo of a river scene, a colour photo of a bird. And some of them were unpleasant: the sound of a knife rubbing against a bottle, a colour photo of a cockroach ...and the electric shock. The shock is not that bad - a bit like the pain you'd feel from a static shock. But it's bad enough that you told the researchers you would pay to avoid receiving it again in the future. And yet, here you are, your hand right next to the number 5 on the keyboard, alone with your thoughts.

This is the exact procedure from a study run by Timothy Wilson - Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia - and colleagues from both the University of Virginia and from Harvard. They tested 42 people under these conditions. 67% of the men who were tested (12 out of 18) gave themselves at least one shock during the thinking period, ranging from 0 to 4 shocks (excluding one man who gave himself 190 shocks). 25% of women tested (6 out of 24) gave themselves at least one shock, ranging from 0 to 9 shocks.

So, why is this a problem? The thing is, neuroscience is uncovering the fact that our brain's default mode is a mind-wandering state. And, similar to dreaming, the mind-wandering state is a creative, productive process. It's when the mind has the time and space to see patterns and links between a wide range of ideas which, in turn, lead to new insights. In fact, Thomas Edison found this mind-wandering process so powerful he called it the 'genius gap'. In other words, he could get so far through concentrated effort, but to get to where the ideas of genius were he needed to day dream.

Now think about a person alone in their bedroom, or waiting for a bus, or even sitting in a group when there is a lull in the conversation. Rather than using that time for creative default-mode thinking, the research above shows that they are very likely to do something to avoid it. And that 'something' has been made much easier with the endless allure of the smartphone.

But, maybe, making people aware of these processes - the benefits of default mode thinking, the problem of continually avoiding it by picking up a smartphone - could be the first step to countering the problem.