How To Be Alone With Your Own Thoughts

There is a study going 'round the bend which found that people — especially dudes — would rather shock themselves with a 9V battery device than sit around doing nothing but thinking, at which I scoff. Doing nothing is the easiest thing in the universe.

Published in Science magazine recently, the study, which looks at the challenges of the disengaged mind, sought to determine how easy it would be for people to put away distractions (like computer-phones) and sit around with nothing but their own thoughts. They thought it would be a cakewalk of nothingness. After all, the participants only had to literally do the easiest thing on earth for 6 to 15 minutes. But they couldn't.

The Washington Post reports that the researchers found that 25% of the ladies and 75% of the dudes chose shocks rather than deal with the nature of their own thoughts for a couple minutes. So the researchers decided to intervene a little and help a brother out:

"We tried to give them time to prepare," he said, "so they could think about what they were going to spend their time thinking about."

But even going into the exercise with a plan — an upcoming vacation to plot, for example, or a particularly dreamy celebrity to daydream about — didn't seem to help participants enjoy their time alone. Those who completed the study at home often admitted to cheating by picking up their phones or a book, and many reported that the six to 15 minutes spent thinking had been unpleasant.

So, to recap: Thinking about George Clooney for five whole minutes didn't even work.

These participants wanted a distraction, so researchers gave them a distraction alright!

He gave them access to a device that would provide a small electrical shock by pressing a button. It wasn't a very strong shock, as the device was built around a 9 volt battery. "But we weren't even sure it was worth doing," he said. "I mean, no one was going to shock themselves by choice."

Au contraire, thinkers! Shock they did. The researchers administered a single test shock for everyone up front just so they knew it would not be super painful but would not be exactly fun either. The participants even said they'd pay up to $5 to not be shocked again, that's how annoying the shock was.

But once they got in that room with only their thinkin' box to taunt them, the participants were so incapable of just letting whatever come into their brain, that they all took to shocking themselves just to get by. One dude did it 190 times.

190.

I can only assume that, when left alone, he thinks a lot about clown porn? But anyway, what's up with these dudes?

And while only 6 of the 24 women shocked themselves, 12 of the 18 men did so. This, the authors wrote in the study, could be attributed to the fact that men tend to be more "sensation seeking" than women. In other words, most men are more interested in seeking variety and stimulation than women are, even if that means getting 190 electric shocks in 15 minutes.

Correction: Most men are more interested in seeking variety and stimulation from a battery than their own brain, which happens to be a veritable Variety and Stimulation Box.

Um, what is wrong with these people? Doing nothing is the lowest level of difficulty there is. It's only two steps:

How to Be Alone With Your Own Thoughts

1. Get rid of people in your immediate vicinity

2. Think.

The last time I was alone with my thoughts for 15 entire minutes involuntarily, I was on a train from NYC to Washington, D.C. My phone had just died. I asked a glamorous French woman across the aisle if I could use her charger for a few minutes. She shook her head no. "Packed too far down in my bag," she shrugged, and continued reading OK! Magazine.

Denied, I realized I was going to have to actually only stare out a window for the rest of the train ride against my will with nothing but the contents of my head to sort through. I couldn't imagine the last time this had happened on accident, but it was still a no-brainer where I used my brain. I guess technically I had something to engage me, but the blurrying landscape of the East Coast — a landscape I'd seen my entire life and of which I'd become largely and sadly immune to the charms — seemed about as fascinating as a beige wall in a doctor's waiting room. So I turned inward and did nothing.

But did I really do nothing? Of course not. I did something. I thought. Which actually raises an interesting question: What constitutes something to engage with? Nothingness is really not nothingness at all. I realized this at a tender age when I saw the movie The Neverending Story, which involves a black void called The Nothing that spreads across the land, taking over everything. And I remember thinking: 1. Noah Hathaway should be my boyfriend and 2. The Nothing is actually A Something.

Is doing nothing the same as loafing? Not at all, even though such notions are often mistakenly conflated, as in the deeply satisfying movie Office Space with Peter Gibbons and his admirable dream of doing nothing. When I saw that movie, I remember thinking: 1. Ron Livingston should be my boyfriend. and 2. Doing nothing in this context is really doing something, also. It's loafing. That doesn't make it any less valid or glorious.

Doing nothing is easy! It's just unstructured time that you do not fill on purpose + literally whatever you think of. All you have to do is sit around, staring off at a space on the wall, with no obligations, and let your mind drift for as long as you want, and let your focus pursue whatever random thing it seems to want to seize on for as long as it follows it. Rinse. Repeat. Nothing.

You have a brain, and in that brain is everything that has ever happened to you that can remember, as well as the ability to conjure all the most random shit in the world that has or hasn't happened or may or may not happen: Weird petty grievances, silly daydreams, complex fantasies, your funeral, your birth, that time you went water skiing, every happiness and every sadness all mixed in, honeysuckle smells good, god I wish I climbed more things, and also dumb shit you want to do soon like making more dishes with whipped cream or whipped things in them, who knows why, just more whipped stuff. Also I'm definitely going to start using more coconut oil.

If you wanted, you could picture every boyfriend you've ever had doing a tap dance in full coat and tails, just to see if any of them passed the test of still being appealing in this getup. Speculation: 5 percent.

You could picture yourself in every outfit in your closet. You could write the first paragraph of your novel again and again. You could imagine yourself as a squid. You could remember that time you woke up in the middle of the night to get a drink of what you thought was milk but it was water but the water tasted exactly like milk and it has been easily 15 years since this happened and you still think about it because you can't believe the trickery of the power of suggestion and you wonder if it will ever happen to you again, except you know it won't because now you know too much.

You could go back over the concept of String Theory and try to make your brain understand it another time, picturing the tiniest particles of the earth as vibrating strings.

What the fuck is a boson, anyway?

Your face, that's what.

Maybe there is a new pop song out that will be better than all the last 10 pop songs you have loved together and all you need to do is search around for a minute on a music blog when you're done doing nothing and it will present itself to you.

Hey, how long has it been, anyway? Ten seconds? Eight minutes? That is the beauty of doing nothing.

This is not, I repeat, the same thing as meditating, and thank God for that. I've got nothing against meditating, but I am not good with stillness. Doing nothing is a great alternative to meditation because you can think thoughts — no pressure to eradicate the thoughts! — you can linger on the past or the present — no pressure to live IN THE MOMENT — and you can move around — no pressure to NOT MOVE!

Why, this doing nothing business practically makes Buddhists look like fascists. Who I guess at least, in the most charitable interpretation, really did (terrible) things.

Anyway, a friend who told me about this study said he thought the whole concept of the brain as a warehouse of pleasant thoughts these people should be able to access easily is a false concept, that a lot of people have to work to access such pleasant memories if they are, for instance, depressed or anxious. And I could see that, especially with the clown porn.

But for me, my nothingness is not a pleasantness spress — I'm not on a tropical beach with a freshly made mojito and a summer page-turner. I'm getting random as fuck. It's more about the curiosities of the world or my own thoughts or the rush of the drift.

A lot of discussion around the study seems to involve sadness that we lack the ability to disengage mentally — but I've never thought of sitting around doing nothing as disengaging, but rather, the opposite. You're still you with your brain, and if anything, all the other stuff we do — social media, texting, reading a bunch of shit online — is the real disengaging from our actual thoughts.

Doing nothing is the ultimate engagement. It's the technology that is a distraction, not your own thoughts, unless clown porn.

Illustration by Jim Cooke.