How many times did you wish “to be left alone”? Of course, you didn’t mean to be truly alone, just to be allowed some time for yourself, without outside interference. Still, beware what you ask for.
Me, my thoughts, and nothing else
Unique among the species, we have the ability to sit and mentally detach ourselves from our surroundings and travel inward, recalling the past, envisioning the future, and imagining worlds that have never existed. But it is also known that it is almost impossible to control the mind. Just try this simple experiment: Instruct your mind not to think for the next 10 minutes about white elephants. All the willpower in the world will not be able to stop a white elephant sneaking into your thoughts.
So I was intrigued by a paper in Science by Timothy Wilson and his collaborators that explored seemingly simple questions: Do people choose to put themselves in default mode (which means neural activity during inward-directed thought by disengaging from the external world)? And when they are in this mode, is it a pleasing experience?
A survey by the U.S. Labor Department suggests that the answer to the first question is “not very often.” Ninety-five percent of American adults reported that they did, at least, one leisure activity in the past 24 hours, such as watching television, socializing, or reading for pleasure, but 83% reported they spent no time whatsoever “relaxing or thinking.” Is this because people do not enjoy having nothing to do but think? Intuitively, we would guess that it is easier for people to steer their thoughts in pleasant directions than in unpleasant ones when the external world is not competing for their attention. Who wants to think about unpleasant things? Psychobiologists at the University of Virginia came to a surprising answer: It is surprisingly difficult to think in enjoyable ways even in the absence of competing external demands.
How did they do it?
They conducted studies in which college-student participants spent time by themselves in an unadorned room (for 6 to 15 min, depending on the study) after storing all of their belongings, including cell phones and writing implements. They were typically asked to spend the time entertaining themselves with their thoughts, with the only rules being that they should remain in their seats and stay awake. The investigators explained that the primary goal was to entertain themselves with their thoughts. And if they find the experience unbearable, they may opt to receive an electric shock to the head. After this “thinking period”, participants answered questions about how enjoyable the experience was, how hard it was to concentrate, etc.
The surprising result
Many participants elected to receive negative stimulation over no stimulation—especially men: 67% of men (12 of 18) gave themselves, at least, one shock during the thinking period, compared to 25% of women (6 of 24).
The gender difference is probably due to the tendency for men to be higher in sensation-seeking. But 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 ($5) to avoid.
What if they didn’t have a choice?
The participants were subjected to a reduction in sensory output (albeit not a complete sensory deprivation) for a relatively short period of time. But what if the experiment lasted weeks or months and they didn’t have the option of self-stimulation with an electric shock? The paper was not designed to answer such an improbable (and probably experimentally impossible to carry out) circumstance. But there is such an experiment, albeit not done voluntarily.
On December 8, 1995, the 43-year-old Jean-Dominique Bauby, editor of the French magazine Elle, suffered a massive stroke while driving to his beach chalet for the weekend. He survived but remained in a locked-in syndrome. The condition paralyzed him from the neck down. Although both eyes worked, doctors decided to sew shut his right eye as it was not irrigating properly and they were worried that it would become infected. He was left being only being able to communicate by blinking his left eyelid.
A speech therapist and physical therapist tried to help Bauby become as functional as possible. Bauby couldn’t speak but he developed a system of communication with his speech and language therapist by blinking his left eye as she read a list of letters to laboriously spell out his messages, letter by letter. The result was a fascinating book, and a movie, describing his thoughts and fantasies, sometimes bordering on hallucinations.
The book, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: A Memoir of Life in Death, explains what it is like to be him, trapped in his body, which he sees as being within an old-fashioned deep-sea diving suit with a brass helmet. Others around, seeing his spirit still alive, saw him as a “Butterfly”. When I read the book many years ago, it was hard to hold back the tears and to marvel at the heroic human spirit of Bauby. The main point for the purpose of this post, though, is that when he realized how irreversible his condition was, he did not seek an aversive stimulation to avoid “being left alone”. On the contrary, he soared to poetic heights by inhabiting his mind with pleasant thoughts.
Postscript: On March 9, 1997, two days after the book was published, Bauby died of pneumonia. The book became a number one bestseller across Europe. Its total sales are now in the millions.
The Science paper is of the highest quality and provides some fascinating insights into the working of the mind. Yet, my mind finds Bauby’s message more uplifting than that of the people who would administer an electric shock to themselves in an effort to avoid being with themselves.
This post was originally published on 9/14/2014. It was updated on 2/25/2016.