In the late 1650s, the French mathematician and philosopher, Blaise Pascal, wrote an insightful sentence, “All of man’s problems stem from his inability to sit still in a room.”
Collected in Pascal’s unfinished Pensées, this little tweet from the 17th century has enlightened us for 350 years. In fact, it has recently received new impetus and momentum from an article in Science magazine.
Titled “Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mind”, the article reports on 11 different studies. Taken together, they show that people – and men especially – would rather receive electric shocks than sit alone in a room.
The article looks at default mode processing and asks two simple questions: “Do people choose to put themselves in default mode by disengaging with the external world? And when they are in this mode, is it a pleasing experience?” As the authors note, we might assume that it’s easier to guide our thoughts in “pleasant directions” when we disengage with the world. However, that’s not what they found.
To study these questions, the researchers asked students to sit still and alone in various locations (a research lab, a dorm room, etc.). They were simply asked to “entertain themselves with their thoughts….” After sitting still for six to 15 minutes, the students reported that it was hard to concentrate, their minds wandered, and, by and large, they didn’t enjoy the experience.
Maybe it’s just college students. But the researchers repeated the studies with people recruited from local churches and at a local farmer’s market. The results were quite similar. Indeed, the researchers found no evidence that demographic factors – gender, age, income, education, etc. – were producing the results. It seems that people from all walks of life just don’t like to sit alone and think.
The researchers then asked another question: “Would [the participants] rather do an unpleasant activity than no activity at all?” Was it just the sitting still that made people stir crazy? The researchers told participants that, instead of just sitting still, they could press a button and receive an electric shock.
With the electric shock in place, the results differed significantly by gender. Two-thirds of the men gave themselves at least one electric shock; only one-fourth of the women did. In other words, a majority of men seem to prefer pain over thought.
That’s not encouraging. I’ve always had faith in reason. I believe that, with patience and goodwill, we should be able to reason our way through our problems. But, as the researchers point out, our “… minds are difficult to control…and it may be particularly hard to steer our thoughts in pleasant directions and keep them there.”
Perhaps meditation training would help. Perhaps we can learn to manage our thoughts and enjoy the process of thinking. Ultimately, however, the researchers conclude that, “The untutored mind does not like to be alone with itself.” That’s just what Pascal said. We haven’t made much progress in 350 years.