Many people would rather inflict pain on themselves than spend 15 minutes in a room with nothing to do but think, according to a US study.
Researchers at the University of Virginia and Harvard University conducted 11 different experiments to see how people reacted to being asked to spend some time alone.
Just over 200 people participated in the experiments, in which researchers asked them to sit alone in an unadorned room, and report back on what it was like to entertain themselves with their thoughts for between six and 15 minutes.
About half found the experience was unpleasant.
Westgate said she is still astounded by those findings. "I think we just vastly underestimated both how hard it is to purposely engage in pleasant thought and how strongly we desire external stimulation from the world around us, even when that stimulation is actively unpleasant."
In similar vein, I notice how difficult people find it to sit still. I think it is part of the same pattern of needing outside stimuli rather than being with their own thoughts. Next time you sit on a plane, a bus or a ferry, practice your own stillness then observe the need in those around you, when they’re not interacting socially, for some kind of diversion. It’s something I do when I’ve forgotten my own diversion (Sudoku, crosswords) on such trips.
Few sit quietly with their own thoughts. Without some kind of diversion most find it impossible not to fidget. A man opposite me on the ferry the other day was in constant motion, either tapping his fingers on the table or jogging his leg or shuffling around in his seat. He had forgotten his smart phone and simply couldn't cope with sitting still. In my youth a common remonstration of parents to their offspring was “don’t fidget” in other words sit still, especially in a doctor’s waiting room or when visiting relatives. Do parents command their children to sit still any more? Or do they prefer to divert their attention in some way? Is sitting still a learned behaviour? It certainly has benefits in terms of patience and silent appreciation of the world around us.
I remember going to a talk given by Yehudi Menuhin at St James Piccadilly on the value of silence. There was something about the quiet dignity of the words and the man that resonated. A love of peace and quiet is one of the few motivations that will drag me into a church or place of contemplation. They are places to escape the noise and bustle of even the busiest streets, something we should be grateful for in our busy lives.
An appreciation of silence is something that can be taught, is useful, essential even, and by and large seems to be missing from contemporary life to the detriment of ourselves as individuals and society in general.
Apart from being ‘surprised’ by the results of the experiment I wonder what implications for society the researchers felt their results showed. Maybe they weren't interested in that aspect but it's something worthy of further study.