Blue Mind: Solving the Crisis of Solitude

Illustration Credit: Leap by Sarah Greenman

A team of researchers at the University of Virginia recently studied college students who were left alone in a room that was empty, except for a single button. When each student arrived, the consequence of pushing the button was demonstrated—a painful shock. Next, the student was asked if he or she would pay not to be shocked again—typically, the student opted to pay. Then the student was left alone in the room to “just think” for fifteen minutes. What happened next was remarkable: A quarter of the women and two-thirds of the men chose to repeatedly push the button rather than sit and let their minds wander.Those who shocked themselves did so an average of seven times.One man (who was considered an outlier, so his data was left out of the study) shocked himself 190 times.Our ability to let our minds wander has been linked to greater working memory and increased creativity. But in a world where one hundred different kinds of distractions arrive at our senses tens of thousands of times a day, being alone with our thoughts may feel strange. As the Virginia study shows, some people will essentially torture …

Wallace J. Nichols, Ph.D., is a marine biologist, community organizer, dad, and the author of the New York Times best seller Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do.

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