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Why is it, that in our heads we yearn for time out, to sit back and relax and do nothing, yet when presented with that scenario we don’t enjoy it?

“But I would!”  I hear you cry.

Err, maybe, but maybe not as the results of a series of studies published in Science has revealed. Most of us don’t actually like sitting doing, well, nothing.

One of the most common comments I get when discussing meditation practice with people is they say they can’t (or won’t) try it because it makes them feel “antsy”, uncomfortable or that they are missing out on doing something else, even for just a few minutes.

Our new technology is often blamed for reducing our attention span and adding to our seemingly endless supply of distraction. But it seems that we like it like that.  People appear to be hard wired to be curious about everything and we don’t like to miss out on an opportunity to explore.

In the studies conducted by Harvard and the University of Virginia, participants (age 18 to 77 years) were asked to sit alone in a room with nothing to do except think, reflect or daydream for between 6-15 minutes.

What was interesting was that across the different age groups, there was no difference found in the amount of restlessness reported.

Overall people said they didn’t enjoy the experience and found it difficult to concentrate, even though they had nothing to distract them! It seems that when we get lost in our thoughts inadvertently, we can enjoy that little sojourn. But having one forced upon us doesn’t work.

Given an alternative, people chose to have “something” to do, whether it was listening to music or using a smart phone or… giving yourself a mild electric shock!

Yes, it appears the prospect of being alone with our thoughts can be so aversive that we would choose to shock ourselves. After receiving a demonstration of a mild electric shock that could be chosen as a diversion during the “time out” with thoughts period, many said they would choose to pay not to receive such a shock again. Yet in the event, 12 of the 18 men (67%) chose to shock themselves at least once in the 15 minute thinking time, while 6 of 24 women (25%) chose to do the same. Researchers and psychologist Timothy Wilson attributes this gender difference to the supposition that men are more likely to seek a “sensation” than women.

Wilson concludes,

 “The human mind is designed to engage with the world”.
 Even when we are by ourselves, our focus is on the outside world.
And without training in meditation or other forms of thought control, most people would choose to engage in external activities.”

This makes sense, as meditation is a process that has to be learnt and practiced. It also reinforces the idea that undertaking meditation practice requires our conscious choice to overcome our natural tendency to fill every cranny and crevice of our thinking time with external activities.

The benefit of learning the skill of meditation is to be able to still your mind and experience being fully “present” in the moment. It reduces stress, hones attention, clarifies thinking and enhances well being.

So if the thought of being alone with your mind is frankly terrifying, why not book in to learn a meditative practice to provide a greater level of inner peace?
And if that all sounds too “New Agey”, think of meditation as a soothing balm to allow your brain to function better. Because the science has shown that those who choose to learn the skill of meditation gain the additional benefits of living longer and with a greater level of physical and mental wellbeing.

T. D. Wilson, D. A. Reinhard, E. C. Westgate, D. T. Gilbert, N. Ellerbeck, C. Hahn, C. L. Brown, A. Shaked. Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mind. Science, 2014; 345 (6192): 75 DOI: 10.1126/science.1250830


Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, podcaster, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.

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