Why do we always need distractions?

July 10, 2014 

Most of us, during an especially hectic day, have dreamed about getting away for awhile and just being alone with our thoughts. Apparently, though, this escape isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

In fact, an experiment conducted by psychologists at the University of Virginia indicates that being alone with one’s thoughts can resemble a form of torture. Many in the experiment ranked it near the bottom of the enjoyment scale.

After reading about how the experiment was conducted, that’s no surprise. College students volunteered to leave their cellphones and other distractions behind and spend six to 15 minutes alone in a sparsely furnished room on the UVA campus.

They were told to entertain themselves only with their thoughts, or imagine doing pleasant activities such as hiking (hiking?).

The weirdest part of the experiment was an odd game devised by the scientists involving an electric shocking device. Students first shocked themselves on the ankle to rate it on a pain scale. Then they were asked to imagine being given $5 and to project how much they would pay to avoid another shock.

Oh, and they were given the option of shocking themselves again during their 15 minutes in the room. And while the vast majority of the 55 participants said they would pay to avoid another shock, 18 of them chose to shock themselves anyway.

I’m not sure what kind of people dream up these experiments. Clearly they are spending too much time alone with their thoughts.

The way the experiment was devised makes me wonder if the experimenters can offer any useful conclusions. I suspect that when most of us think about being alone with our thoughts, we’re also thinking of leafy dells, gurgling streams, sunlight casting dappled shadows through the trees near our bed of moss, and maybe a faun gamboling in a meadow.

In the UVA experiment, being alone with one’s thoughts was like being in a dentist’s waiting room: “Am I supposed to just sit here thinking about getting my teeth cleaned? Hand me that cattle prod!”

Fifteen minutes must have felt like an eternity.

Most of us probably can empathize. Even with “distractions,” waiting can be agony.

How many of us have leafed through a two-year-old copy Ladies Home Journal while waiting for an oil change? How many of us have walked over and read the wall charts in the exam room while waiting for the doctor to look us over? (Ah, so that’s where the medulla oblongata is!)

In that respect, the UVA experiment might provide some insight into how reliant we have become on our cellphones and other sophisticated distractions, whose primary function, it seems, is to keep us from having to be alone with our own thoughts. What did we do before we could access the Internet on a device we can hold in our palms?

I remember when, to keep our kids under control at church, we had to get them to draw pictures on the visitors cards. Or they could crawl under the pew and torment the people sitting in front of us.

Nowadays, parents just let their children play video games – which can make parents envious if the sermon drags on too long.

Maybe we should feel guilty about always needing something to keep our minds occupied. The pioneers didn’t need cellphones or TV or even a good book to distract them.

Of course, there was that survival thing. They had to find food, build fires, worry about wild animals, construct log cabins, try not to freeze to death or die of heat stroke.

Those things would keep you occupied most days.

My advice to the UVA psychologists would be to tweak the experiment slightly. Keep the sparse room, but put a comfortable bed in it.

If you are alone with your thoughts in a bed, the experience often progresses into a nap. And that’s always welcome.

Please fluff my pillow and hold the electroshock.

James Werrell, Herald opinion page editor, can be reached at 329-4081 or, by email, at jwerrell@heraldonline.com.

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