"All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone," wrote the French philosopher Blaise Pascal. It's a line repeated so frequently, in the era of smartphones and social media, that it's easy to forget how striking it is that he wrote it in the 1600s. Back then, a sentence such as "Yo is a messaging app that enables iPhone and Android users to say 'Yo' to their friends" might have got you burned as a witch.
Yet even in 17th-century France, apparently, people hated being alone with their thoughts so intensely, they'd do almost anything else: play boules, start the Franco-Spanish war, and so on. Still, I'd wager even Pascal would have been disturbed by a study published recently in Science, showing that people detest being made to spend six to 15 minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think – even to the extent of being willing to give themselves mild electric shocks instead. It's natural to conclude that there's something wrong with such people. Which means, all else being equal, that something's probably wrong with you, too.
Modern humans spend virtually no time on "inward-directed thought", and not solely because we're too busy: in one US survey, 95% of adults said they'd found time for a leisure activity in the previous 24 hours, but 83% said they'd spent zero time just thinking. The new study, led by Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia, first asked students to entertain themselves with nothing but their thoughts in an "unadorned room". Most said they found it hard to concentrate; half found it unpleasant or neutral at best. In further experiments, older people, and those who rarely used smartphones, got similar results. Meanwhile, those given the chance to do something outward-directed, such as reading, enjoyed it far more. And when 42 people got to choose between sitting doing nothing and giving themselves electric shocks, two-thirds of men and a quarter of women chose the latter.
Are we mad? In his book Back To Sanity, the Leeds Metropolitan University psychologist Steve Taylor answers: yes. The condition he diagnoses, "humania", isn't recognised as a disorder, but only because we're all victims, he argues, and it's part of the definition of a mental illness that most people don't have it. The "urge to immerse our attention in external things is so instinctive that we're scarcely aware of it", he writes. We often speak of emails, tweets and texts as if they're annoyances that we'd eliminate if we could. Yet the truth, of course, is that half the time we're desperate to be distracted, and gladly embrace the interruption.
Taylor's explanation for this puzzle borrows from Buddhism (among other places). We mistake ourselves for individual, isolated beings, trapped within our heads. No wonder we don't dwell on what's inside: that would underline the loneliness of existence, so obviously watching TV is more fun. To sit comfortably with your thoughts first requires seeing that there's a sense in which they're not real. A less new agey way of putting it is simply that you don't need to believe your thoughts. Whereupon they become fun to watch, and the need for distraction subsides. To quote the title of a book by Sylvia Boorstein, a meditation teacher: don't just do something, sit there.