Being Alone With Your Brain


This study was floating around the internet last week, claiming that people nowadays would rather inflict physical pain on themselves than be left alone with nothing but their thoughts. The first part of the study involved students being left in a room without phones, books or writing implements, and told to think. They were then informed they would be alone for anything between six and fifteen minutes. The only rules were they had to stay in their seat and not fall asleep.

Unsurprisingly, most of the subjects hated it. Some of them found it so difficult that they cheated by getting up and checking their phones.

The researchers then repeated the experiment but, this time, hooked the subjects up to a button which would administer a mild electric shock when pushed. Twelve of eighteen men shocked themselves, as did six of twenty-four women.

Okay, this study has a load of flaws. Firstly, I think the morbid curiosity of wanting to see how bad the shock would be probably had more than a little to do with the results. Secondly, the article above states that, when instructed to 'do nothing', the students:

"struggled to concentrate. Their minds wandered even with nothing to distract them. Even giving them time to think about what to think about did not help."

Huh? Isn't that the point? If you have nothing to do, then of course your mind is going to wander. What were they supposed to be concentrating on? Is it actually possible to 'do nothing' Since thinking is, by definition, 'doing something'?

Is the idea that your brain might run off and do its own thing so utterly terrifying that people can't even comprehend it as normal any more?

Regardless of the issues with this study, I still find the idea interesting. The fact that people seem to hate being alone with their thoughts baffles me.

I recently went on a two and a half hour flight and literally sat there with my eyes closed, thinking, for the entire duration. I can't read on planes (it makes me really sick), and my Nexus was playing up so I couldn't watch the TV shows I had loaded onto it. Granted, I had music to listen to, but still.

I'm not one of those people who meditates or bangs on about 'mindfulness' (and most of the time I do have a book or a phone in my hand) but on the odd occasion where I am forced to spend some alone time with my brain, I find it pretty enjoyable.

I like how I can start of thinking about one thing and then my mind will wander off on some tangent, then another, until I'm thinking about something completely bizarre and unrelated. Then I like tracing back the steps to see where I made the connections.

I like how sometimes my brain will provide with an answer for something I was struggling with, completely out of the blue. People say this always happens in the shower, but I find it happens whenever you're unable to write it down. Sod's Law.

I like how I can imagine my perfect - if unrealistic - life: When I'm not in my holiday home in the Maldives, I'm swanning around my enormous mansion in the countryside, with fully equipped gym, heated indoor pool and a vineyard in the back garden, where a team of magical elves tirelessly make my own personal brand of wine.

I imagine a lot of people (including those in the study) would claim that 'doing nothing' or being alone with your thoughts is boring.

It's not.

I'll tell you what's truly boring...

  • Being forced to do something repetitive that involves a small amount of brain power, such that you can't let your mind wander, but not enough to make it challenging. Writing SEO title tags is a good example.
  • Having to make small talk with people who you know you are never, ever going meet again.
  • Work meetings in which you are forced to be present to say a few words, therefore you have to listen in case someone asks you a question, but where the majority of what's being said has nothing to do with you.
  • Meetings in general.

I am routinely bored to tears by these things. Actual physical tears of boredom. When confronted with these situations, there is nothing I would like more than to zone out and let my mind wander to weird and wonderful places. Clearly, other people would rather turn to their phone and check their emails or scan their Facebook feed.

Is this you?

I don't have much advice for those people who think that 'doing nothing' is boring. All I can suggest is that you separate 'doing nothing' from 'thinking', because they really aren't the same thing.

Just because you don't have a phone in your hand or a computer in front of you doesn't mean you can't be doing something productive, interesting or fun.

Next time you're faced with a problem, instead of running straight to Google or asking someone for help, why not sit for five minutes and try and figure it out yourself?

And next time you're stuck in an actual boring situation, don't reach for your phone to check Instagram. Think about where you want to go on your next holiday, or imagine your perfect house, car, dog, pair of shoes, whatever.

Spend more time with your brain. Let it go off on tangents. You might be surprised at what you've been missing.

photo credit: dierk schaefer via photopin cc