The shock of being alone to just think

Tuesday , August 05, 2014 - 6:03 PM

Standard-Examiner contributor

There exists a photo of me, my oldest daughter, two sons-in-law and 1-year-old grandson sitting in our family room. None of us are looking at each other. Instead, the four adults are staring at smartphones while my grandson plays with the DirecTV remote.

I was reminded of the photo – snapped by a giggling daughter No. 2 and immediately posted to Facebook to ensure maximum ridicule and mockery – after reading a New York Times story about a study published in Science magazine. The research found that although people complain about leading lives that are too busy, apparently they cannot tolerate pausing for what the Times’ writer termed “reflective thought.”

To wit: The Times quoted the study’s author as saying that “people seem to find any excuse they can to keep busy.” There was one doozy that definitely caught my attention.

Researchers conducted 11 experiments on more than 700 people, finding that a majority of participants overall “found it unpleasant to be alone in a room with their thoughts for just 6 to 15 minutes.” The punchline is HOW unpleasant they were.

The Times story continues, “Moreover, in one experiment, 64 percent of men and 15 percent of women began self-administering electric shocks when left alone to think. These same people, by the way, had previously said they would pay money to avoid receiving the painful jolt.”

Electric shocks. Self-administered. Because that’s better than being “left alone to think.”

For those of you who have been suspecting the world is going to hell: Too late – hell has arrived.

Had the researchers used me in their study, I definitely would have dragged the males-preferring-electroshock numbers in the opposite direction. That’s because I still remember the time when, as a really little boy, Mom told me not to stick a fork into the electrical outlet. I did, of course, and it scared me witless in addition to hurting like … well, nothing before or since.

Besides, I actually look forward to having nothing to do but think. Or, more honestly, sit still and do nothing.

Remember the “Seinfeld” episodes with Puddy, Elaine’s boyfriend? And how she’d get really irritated over his habit of zoning out and staring ahead without focusing on anything at all?

I can do that. I LIKE doing that.

The study’s researchers and other experts in fields including “mindfulness meditation” and the “interplay of self-reflection and empathy” at institutions with names such as the Emotion and Self-Control Laboratory and the Center for Metacognitive Interpersonal Therapy say our minds would rather be busy with anything instead of, say, money troubles and family crises. Smartphones and tablets provide an easy refuge from having to confront the more difficult aspects of our lives. We’re constantly putting off the things we need to ponder in order to move forward emotionally.

The danger, according to one psychiatrist, is that “feeling what you feel is an ability that atrophies if you don’t use it.”

So, for those of you who are not like me – my comfort regarding my own periods of inertness is both considerable and impressive – the Times article says “experts advise not using first-person pronouns when thinking about troubling events in your life. Instead, use third-person pronouns or your own name when thinking about yourself.”

That way, you down two birds with a single stone: 1) you get to pretend to be Karl Malone, the planet’s foremost third-person self-referencing athlete in history, and, 2) as an expert told the Times, you “almost trick yourself into thinking your problems are happening to someone else.”

Or, you can use the Porter/Puddy method: Steer clear of electric outlets, remain unfocused and enjoy the quiet.

Email Don Porter, whose iPhone may be switched to “silent,” at

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