“We went into this thinking that mind wandering wouldn’t be that hard,” said Timothy Wilson, University of Virginia professor of psychology and lead author of the study. “People usually think of mind wandering as being a bad thing, because it interrupts when you’re trying to pay attention. But we wanted to see what happens when mind wandering is the goal.”
Wilson didn’t think his subjects would struggle with the task. “We have this big brain full of pleasant memories, and we’re able to tell ourselves stories and make up fantasies. But despite that, we kept finding that people didn’t like it much and found it hard.”
The researchers tried everything they could think of to make the task of being task-less easier. “We tried to give them time to prepare,” he said, “so they could think about what they were going to spend their time thinking about.”
But even going into the exercise with a plan — an upcoming vacation to plot, for example, or a particularly dreamy celebrity to daydream about — didn’t seem to help participants enjoy their time alone. Those who completed the study at home often admitted to cheating by picking up their phones or a book, and many reported that the six to 15 minutes spent thinking had been unpleasant.
When it became clear that people were desperate for distractions, the researchers decided to give them one. “It dawned on us: If people find this so difficult,” Wilson said, “would they prefer negative stimulations to boredom?” He gave them access to a device that would provide a small electrical shock by pressing a button. It wasn't a very strong shock, as the device was built around a 9 volt battery. “But we weren’t even sure it was worth doing,” he said. “I mean, no one was going to shock themselves by choice.”
But they did. The researchers removed the curiosity factor by giving subjects a sample shock beforehand. They even asked them how much they would pay, given a $5 allowance, to prevent another shock. Most offered up a hypothetical dollar or two. But when left alone in the room for a 15-minute thinking session, the participants exhibited some shocking behavior. One man (whose data was left out of the study) shocked himself 190 times. “I have no idea what was going on there,” Wilson said. “But for most people, it was more like seven times.”
And while only 6 of the 24 women shocked themselves, 12 of the 18 men did so. This, the authors wrote in the study, could be attributed to the fact that men tend to be more "sensation seeking" than women. In other words, most men are more interested in seeking variety and stimulation than women are, even if that means getting 190 electric shocks in 15 minutes.
Jonathan Smallwood, a professor of psychology at the University of York who wasn’t involved in the study said that being able to disengage mentally is an important attribute. “It allows us to think about information that is not in the environment,” Smallwood said. It's hypothesized that this allows us to act in ways that aren't directly influenced by our environmental stimuli. "So that is probably the way," he said, "that the human mind escapes from simple reflexive behavior.”
The ability to let the mind wander has been linked to greater working memory and increased creativity, he said. But the study’s findings don’t surprise him. In a world where we have a hundred distractions—social media and smartphones, for example—the subjects probably found being alone with their thoughts to be strange, Smallwood said. Although Wilson's studies were small, with a series of 11 experiments using between 40 and 100 people each, both researchers said that the field is ripe for further exploration.
Don’t disable your Facebook just yet: It’s possible that modern distractions aren’t totally to blame. In fact, study participants who used social media less frequently weren’t better daydreamers. “I suppose it’s kind of circular,” Wilson said. “We wouldn’t crave these things if we weren’t in need of distractions. But having so many available keeps us from learning how to disengage.”