Thinking about Thinking

It’s not so much a “religious” topic today, but I think one that undergirds much of my reflection.

Over the last week or so, I keep seeing news articles concerning a study at the University of Virginia, about peoples’ discomfort at being alone with their own thoughts. Apparently, many of the volunteer subjects prefer to self-administer electric shocks than to have no distractions from what is going on in their own heads for even the twelve minute experimental test period.

So would I. And I routinely self-administer electric shocks.

This morning, I saw a blog post from Psychology Today about this experiment, and the author attempted to replicate the conditions of the study in her own environment. She reports only marginal success, and apparently a great deal of discomfort. Her premise is that there was probably a personality-type difference between the experimental subjects who were comfortable with the conditions (introverts), and those who were not (extroverts). As a self-identified introvert, she found that she was still quite uncomfortable with the impositions of the study.

There is so much wrong here, I barely know where to begin.

First, what does it mean to “think”? And is it an activity that is best done in isolation from other activities, such as taking a walk, knitting a sock, washing the dishes, listening to music? Is it best done in the spartan environment of a research facility, in a room with just a chair to sit in and a rubber band with which to fidget?

The blog author says she is happy to be alone with her own thoughts if she is doing something in tandem with thinking–knitting (my particular favorite), doodling. It seems as though some activity might actually spark the thought process, rather than hinder it. I know for myself when I’ve hit a writer’s block or needed to work through a particularly difficult problem, picking up a small knitting project for ten or fifteen minutes will often help to clarify my next steps–it is a spur to thought, not an inhibitor.

Thought doesn’t happen in a vacuum. We may do some thinking in solitude, but it seems to me the best thoughts happen when they arise from something else–our response to music, art, nature, even the company of a pet. I had a cat who was so emotionally needy that if I wanted to get the reading done for my doctoral seminars, I had to read it out loud to him. Oddly, the added dimension of making the cat think he had my undivided attention helped me retain more of the material, and write more thoughtfully about it, than I might otherwise have done.

Indeed, this may be the major flaw of the study, so far as I can see. The conditions of such sensory deprivation are more akin to torture than to an environment conducive to thought worthy of one’s undivided attention. Thought apparently requires stimulus, and if the only stimulus available is an electric shock, that’s what you work with.

The blog author also makes what I consider to be a foundational mistake, in that she says she tried not to meditate, because the goal was not to clear the mind, but to think. Meditation is not always emptying the head; indeed, in Christian meditation, one often is engaged in very concentrated thought on a particular object. Perhaps it is an icon, a passage of Scripture, the life of a saint. But, if one has ever attended a Good Friday service, one knows that the “meditation” on the Cross is not about emptying the mind, but filling it with that image and all the weight of meaning it conveys.

She also mentioned (twice) that the research conditions she attempted to replicate were not “entertaining”. Here I go back to Postman, and question whether every activity in life, and all conditions, should be “entertaining”–and whether worthwhile thought emerges from the environment of “entertainment”. We’ve even gotten to the point where about half of the so-called “news” (especially on television and on-line) is really celebrity gossip about the entertainment world. Do we really have no more worthy thoughts, or higher needs, than to be constantly “entertained”?

I wonder, more importantly perhaps, whether we are ever alone with our own thoughts. We may be alone, we may be thinking (perhaps best in tandem with another activity like walking the dog or peeling potatoes), but is it possible to really think outside the company of others–even if they are not present in the same room at the same time with us? I would imagine that thought cannot be entirely solitary, because my experience of thinking is that it needs some mental equivalent of a sourdough bread starter. It needs something to set the process in motion, and that something needs to be both potent and worthy.

I don’t know what the University of Virginia experimenters meant by “thought”. But it seems to me, something worthy of the category of intellectual activity with the potential to create enduring value, cannot happen under the torture-chamber conditions of this experiment.


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