Would You Rather Be Quiet or Give Yourself Electric Shocks?

Here’s a (literally!) shocking statistic: In a study published in Science Daily, researchers at the University of Virginia found that 25 percent of women and 67 percent of men preferred to give themselves electric shocks over spending quality time with their own minds.

Study participants were instructed to sit alone in a bare laboratory room for six to 15 minutes, without access to external distractions such as cell phones, pens, and books. Their task? To simply stay seated and “entertain themselves with their thoughts.”

As the study authors observed, “What is striking is that simply being alone with their thoughts for 15 minutes was apparently so aversive that it drove many participants to self-administer an electric shock that they had earlier said they would pay to avoid.”

How can we understand this bizarre behavior? Lead study author and University of Virginia psychologist Timothy Wilson explains it this way: “The mind is designed to engage with the world. Even when we are by ourselves, our focus usually is on the outside world. And without training in meditation or thought-control techniques…most people would prefer to engage in external activities.”

In a series of 11 small studies, he and his colleagues studied the behaviors and reactions of 800 volunteers, aged 18 to 77, who were asked to sit quietly and think for a short period of time. In the first 10 studies (which didn’t offer an electric shock option), most participants reported that they found it difficult to concentrate and did not enjoy the task of sitting quietly in self-reflection.

Downtime is Good for You

An increasing number of scientists and psychologists are arguing that we need more mental downtime. In an article published in Scientific American last fall, reporter Ferris Jabr observes, “Downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to both achieve our highest levels of performance and simply form stable memories in everyday life.” He reviews science suggesting that we should regularly give ourselves mental breaks by taking vacations, meditating, spending time in green spaces, and napping.

Why is it so hard for us to spend time in quiet stillness and engage in other forms of downtime? Kripalu faculty member Maria Sirois, a clinical psychologist and resilience expert, and the author of Every Day Counts: Lessons in Love, Faith and Resilience, suggests several reasons.

Many people have never had stillness and downtime modeled for them, so they might not “know how” to be quiet or understand the benefits, she says. Our culture favors relentless stimulation over stillness, so we pack our schedules with achievement-oriented tasks and don’t develop the habit of “simply being.”

But Maria says the benefits of downtime—and specifically, sitting in stillness—might include

  • Physiological calm
  • Reduced blood pressure
  • Increased self-esteem
  • Improved memory
  • Decreased depression and anxiety
  • Improved IQ
  • A greater sense of meaning in life.

How Mindfulness and Meditation Help

To incorporate more downtime into your life, Maria suggests practicing both mindfulness and meditation. Although they’re not equivalent to thinking (which is what the researchers in the electric shock study focused on), both serve as a form of mental training that might help us strengthen our attention muscles and cultivate a love for solitude.

“Mindfulness requires us to turn our minds toward stillness,” observes Maria. “We learn to notice when our minds are distracted and return our focus to stillness.” That helps us take a step back when we experience stressors, and actively return to a state of mental and physiological calmness before we react or make tough choices.

Meditation has profound downtime-benefits, too, Maria says.

“When we engage in a daily meditation practice, we’re quieting the mind to focus on one thing, such as the breath, a mantra, or a self-loving phrase,” Maria explains. “Over time, this trains us to appreciate quiet as the surround-sound in which our deeper, more authentic voices may be heard. It can also build resilience, because we begin to feel and to hear ourselves think. We can come to know answers to two very important questions: What do I need? and what do I want? These questions help us move away from instinctively reacting to stressors in our lives, as we have in the past, and begin to make healthier, wiser choices instead.”

Three Minutes of Meditation

Maria recommends this easy three-minute meditation practice for building resilience and learning how to sit quietly with yourself.

  1. Take a deep breath.
  2. Continue focusing on your breath until it becomes slow and rhythmic.
  3. Allow your mind to shift its focus. Begin to pay attention to the sounds of the world around you.
  4. If you notice yourself becoming distracted, simply say to yourself, "Oh, well." Return to your breath first, and then to sounds around you.

“Meditating on sound provides us with an initial focus of stimulation,” Maria explains. “First, it teaches us how to notice and appreciate sound. Then it leads us to appreciate the spaces between sound—the peace of quiet.” Practice in small increments, she suggests, gradually building your capacity to 10 minutes and beyond.

As the electric-shock study authors wrote in their research paper: “The untutored mind does not like to be alone with itself.” But, with practices like mindfulness and meditation, we can get more comfortable inside our own heads.

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