I’m not sure when I first read the quote by French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal: “All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone,” but I have been intrigued by it ever since. I understand Pascal to be saying, “People don’t like being by themselves with their own thoughts.” I also can read it as, “Miseries come from not knowing yourself.”
A recent study examines Pascal’s opinion in a scientific manner.
Timothy Wilson, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, wanted to know what would happen if people were given the opportunity to just quietly think. In an interview with the Washington Post, professor Wilson explained, “People usually think of mind-wandering as a bad thing because it interrupts when you’re trying to pay attention. We wanted to see what happens when mind-wandering is the goal.”
Volunteers were placed in a sparsely furnished room with no access to cellphones, pens or other distracting instruments. Some were asked to think about whatever they wanted while others were given prompts to think about. After 15 minutes, the individuals were asked to rate the experience. About 50 percent of people reported that the enjoyment level was at or below the midpoint on the scale used.
Participants were then allowed to do the thinking time experiment at their own homes. More than 30 percent of the student volunteers admitted they cheated by getting out of their chairs, listening to music, checking their phones or otherwise looking for some distractions while 54 percent of the adult subjects from outside the university similarly fessed up.
The researchers then wondered how far people would go to seek distractions and avoid the boredom of sitting alone with their thoughts. Subjects were placed in a room to think and told they could give themselves an electric shock if they wished. Two-thirds of the men chose to shock themselves at some point in the experiment, and most did it more than once. One-quarter of the women volunteers applied the shock to themselves which is one more proof to my mind that women have more sense than men.
Erin Westgate, a co-author of the study, was surprised by the findings and said the team underestimated “how hard it is to purposely engage in pleasant thoughts and how strongly we desire external stimulation from the world around us even when that stimulation is actively unpleasant.”
The results of the experiment are inconclusive. One outside psychologist, Sherrie Bourg Carter, suggests modern technology may contribute to the seeming need for constant outside stimulus as well as the difficulty we have in slowing down. Sitting quietly in a room with our thoughts “has become quite foreign to most people, even the elderly, who were not raised in an electronically-driven world.”
On the other hand, Jonathan Schooler, a psychologist who studies consciousness at UC Santa Barbara, thinks the results do not necessarily prove people are uncomfortable being alone with their thoughts.
“I am confident that there are conditions where at least a subsample of the population enjoys the quiet opportunity for self- reflection,” he said.
I find myself agreeing with both opinions. Surely, the 24/7 electronic bombardment of media in all it forms contributes to some degree to our modern inability to slow down. On the other hand, my first thoughts when I read about the study were of people who practice meditation and of religious ascetics and contemplatives who purposely separate themselves from the outside world to be alone with their thoughts.
At any rate, I found the study and the results quite interesting. I should probably switch off my phone, go into a quiet room and sit and think about it.
Norman Knight, a retired Clark-Pleasant Middle School teacher, writes this weekly column for the Daily Journal. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.