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Editorial: Alone With Our Thoughts, a Shocking Finding

Henry David Thoreau and Victor Hugo wouldn’t have known what to make of people in this age of brain overload. The pre-smartphone author of Walden famously proclaimed, “I have never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude.” Hugo, in Les Miserables, rhapsodized about the wonders of electronics-free contemplation when he wrote, “A garden to walk in and immensity to dream in — what more could he ask? A few flowers at his feet and above him the stars.”

How about a battery and a minor shock?

Recently the Washington Post reported on the results of a study published in Science that found that many people so abhor sitting alone and letting their minds wander that they prefer giving themselves little electric jolts to pass the time. What unsettled them was spending up to 15 minutes just thinking … about nothing, or anything. People resisted so much that the researchers tried priming the pump by suggesting that they think about future vacations or “a particularly dreamy celebrity.” Participants still found the experience of enforced daydreaming unpleasant; some who participated at home away from the watchful eyes of researchers admitted that they cheated by picking up a phone or a book.

“It dawned on us,’’ said Timothy Wilson, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia and lead author of the study, “If people find this so difficult, would they prefer negative stimulations to boredom?” He gave participants a device that would provide a small electric shock if they pressed a button. Left alone in a room for 15 minutes, the average subject shocked himself about seven times. Only six of 24 women in the study did so, but 12 of 18 men did, which shows the lengths an empty-headed man might go to when there are no sports to watch.

The researchers were, pardon the expression, shocked. “We went into this thinking that mind-wandering wouldn’t be that hard,’’ said Wilson. “We have this big brain, full of pleasant memories, and we’re able to tell ourselves stories and make up fantasies.”

We, however, are not shocked. Any casual observer can see that people are increasingly loathe to be alone with their thoughts. Earphones, smartphones, tablets — they come out in seconds when travelers wait for a bus, or diners wait for a table. They’ve forgotten the many things that merit contemplation. From science: Is the consensus correct about climate change, or has radio host Rush Limbaugh proved it to be bunk? From the law: If corporations are persons, as the Supreme Court alleges, do some have personality disorders? From classical theology: How many angels would fit on the head of a pin, and would they outhit the Red Sox? These are just starter topics — it might be wise to ease into subjects such as the Big Bang Theory (the origins of the universe, not the TV show.)

Of course, small studies don’t really settle questions, but any decline in our collective ability to daydream is troubling, since free-range thinking is linked to creativity and improved memory. We don’t know if it’s time to propose a National Contemplation Initiative, but it’s surely worth thinking about. Give it 15 minutes or so, and keep your hands off that electronic device.