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blaise pascal

Sitting Still In a Room

Sit still!

Sit still!

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.

Pascal’s Wager and the Mediterranean Diet

Wanna bet?

Wanna bet?

I like to think of Blaise Pascal (1623 — 1662), the French mathematician, as the western world’s first practitioner of Twitter. His collected Pensées were brief, enigmatic thoughts about mathematics, religion, and philosophy. Collected after his death, they read like the tweets of the 17th century (though they were intended to be a much more comprehensive defense of religion).

In the Pensées, Pascal made his famous wager. We all bet with our lives on whether God exists or not. We can live as if God exists and practice the traditional forms and virtues of religion. Or we can do the opposite and ignore our religious duties, assuming that God does not exist. If we live as if God exists and we’re right then the rewards are infinite. If we’re wrong, the loss is finite — indeed it’s quite small. Thus, Pascal argues, it’s only rational to live a pious life. The wager is heavily stacked to that side.

In today’s world, we don’t spend much time wagering on God’s existence (perhaps we should) but we make lots of bets that are much like Pascal’s. The cumulative effects are enormous.

For instance, consider the Mediterranean diet. The diet — which features olive oil, nuts, vegetables, and fish but not much red meat — has been on our radar for a number of years now. Epidemiologists observed that people who live near the Mediterranean have a much lower rate of heart disease than would be expected. Maybe it’s the diet. Or maybe it’s something else, like religion, culture, family structure, heredity, etc.

So the evidence for the positive health effects of the diet was an observed correlation. We could see that the diet was correlated (inversely) to heart disease but we couldn’t be sure that it caused the lower rates. Maybe a hidden, third factor was in play. Still, we could make a version of Pascal’s wager: eat as if the Mediterranean diet does reduce the risk of heart disease. If we’re right, we live longer. If we’re wrong … well, we’ve missed out on a few tasty bacon cheeseburgers. Would you take the bet?

Last week, the level of evidence changed dramatically. A five-year, randomized Spanish study of nearly 7,5000 people was published. People who followed the Mediterranean diet had 30% fewer heart attacks, strokes, and deaths from heart disease than the control group. Since the study used the experimental method, we can now talk about cause and effect, not just correlation. Now will you take the bet?

Of course, there’s still some doubt about the results. It’s only one study; it hasn’t been replicated yet. It was conducted in Spain. Maybe we wouldn’t get the same results in America. Maybe there were methodological or measurement errors. Still, the evidence seems pretty strong and it points toward a version of Pascal’s classic wager.

We all make versions of Pascal’s wager every day but we rarely think about them. Perhaps it’s time that we pay more attention. Perhaps it’s time to think about what levels of evidence we need before we take the bet. Is correlation enough or do we need to prove cause and effect? Life is uncertain but perhaps we can make it more comfortable by thinking — and betting — logically. While you’re pondering that, I’m going to drizzle some olive oil over a bowl of walnuts. Drop by if you’re hungry.

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