Many Don't Want to Be Alone With Their Thoughts

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THURSDAY, July 3, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Some people would rather do anything -- even hurt themselves -- than spend quiet time with their own thoughts, a new study finds.

Researchers conducted a series of experiments with volunteers aged 18 to 77 and found that they generally did not like spending even short periods of time alone in a room with nothing to do but think or daydream.

The majority of them preferred external activities such as listening to music or using a smartphone. Some of the participants -- 67 percent of males and 25 percent of females -- disliked being alone with just their thoughts so much that they gave themselves mild electric shocks as a distraction during a 15-minute session of quiet thinking. Previously, these same people had been given a sample shock, and had said they would pay to avoid being shocked again.

"Those of us who enjoy some down time to just think likely find the results of this study surprising -- I certainly do -- but our study participants consistently demonstrated that they would rather have something to do than to have nothing other than their thoughts for even a fairly brief period of time," study author Timothy Wilson, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, said in a university news release.

The amount of time that participants were given to be alone with their thoughts ranged from six to 15 minutes. The finding that this was unpleasant for people of all ages was unexpected.

"That was surprising -- that even older people did not show any particular fondness for being alone thinking," Wilson said.

The study appears in the July 4 issue of the journal Science.

Factors such as the wide availability of electronic devices or the fast pace of modern society likely don't cause people's dislike of being alone and thinking, according to Wilson. Rather, most people probably use these devices because they want to always have something to do, he suggested in the news release.

Wilson noted that previous research found that people generally prefer not to disconnect from the world.

"The mind is designed to engage with the world," he said. "Even when we are by ourselves, our focus usually is on the outside world. And without training in meditation or thought-control techniques, which still are difficult, most people would prefer to engage in external activities."

Wilson and his team are still trying to determine the exact reasons why many people don't want to be alone with their own thoughts. He noted that everyone enjoys daydreaming and fantasizing at times, but these types of thinking are most enjoyable when they're spontaneous, and are difficult to summon at will.

More information

The U.S. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine offers an overview of meditation.