All of us are aware that being alone, without outside stimulation, is something a lot of people have problems with. Why else would hundreds of millions of people spend hours a day watching a box that negatively impacts their brain while teaching them very little? The answer was clear to some of us even before the emergence of Wilson et al’s new research: people are generally not comfortable with themselves and their own thoughts.
The abstract of Wilson et al’s 2014 study states “Most people seem to prefer to be doing something rather than nothing, even if that something is negative.” The study itself, which left test subjects alone in a room with their thoughts for 6 to 15 minutes, actually included several experiments. In one variation, subjects were offered the chance to give themselves electrical shocks to “pass the time.” It is less surprising that some people did this than the fact that the majority of men (67%) and a significant portion of women (25%) would rather shock themselves than simply be alone with themselves for up to 15 minutes.
But, why? Why would people rather be shock themselves than think? The answer lies likely not in the act of reflection itself, but the type of thoughts that can surface when people are left calmly alone, without input. Without outside input, humans start to notice themselves, their way of life, their connections (or lack of connection) to others, and analyse past experience. Far from being negative, these types of thoughts are actually the kind of observations and internal conversations that need to happen more often, and which help develop emotional maturity.
According to Carl Rogers’ school of humanist psychology, internal psychic energy takes a negative form when experience and self-perception do not overlap. To apply this to our understanding of the experiment: those who are unable to tolerate a short moment of silence are likely avoiding dealing with inconsistencies in their understanding of themselves, their experience, and their place in the world.
So much of our modern life is dedicated to keeping people from having to ever deal with these issues, and their avoidance can take the forms as banal as clubbing or stamp collecting, or as gruesome as serial homicide. These problems are not aided by the fact that there is little public discourse about topics as important as respect (for self or others), and little emphasis on teaching children about meditation.
A cultural focus on competition, domination, and a simple avoidance of past trauma (instead of its cognitive “digestion”), likely intensifies these problems and contributes to the increasingly ubiquitous nature of bullying and the continued destruction of our biosphere. Although a certain amount “sensation-seeking” is totally natural and expected (indeed, it played a major role in the spread of humans across the planet), it does not normally extend to shocking oneself to avoid thinking about life.