Shocking Preference To Thinking A Harbinger Of The Future

By Caille Millner
San Francisco Chronicle.

Have you read the story about a new study purporting to show that people prefer being shocked with electricity to being left alone with their thoughts?

At least six or seven people sent it to me — and perhaps you — over the past week.

The study was published in Science, and led by Timothy Wilson, a researcher at the University of Virginia.

His team performed 11 experiments that asked people to sit, undistracted, and entertain themselves with only their thoughts for six to 15 minutes.

Most of the results aren’t news to anyone who’s ever taken a meditation class: Sitting by yourself, alone with your thoughts, can be difficult.

Fifty-eight percent of participants in the first six studies rated the experience as at least somewhat hard; 32 percent of people in the seventh study, which they were able to do at home, admitted to cheating. (I suspect that many of the other subjects were lying.)

The study that got the most attention, though, was the one that hooked subjects up to electrical wires.

Fully a quarter of the women and two-thirds of the men zapped themselves rather than sit silently and do nothing at all.

Most subjects shocked themselves around seven times, Wilson reported.

The behavior is unexplained and unexplainable.

“We weren’t even sure it was worth doing,” said Wilson, speaking about the idea of wiring the subjects. “I mean, no one was going to shock themselves by choice.”

But they did, and they did it over and over again.

I am unsure of how to think about the results of this study.

Most of the people who sent it to me did so with an emoji smirk or a little message denoting smugness — a common enough reason for sending our friends the stories that we find on the Internet.

Look at these idiots, is the shared subtext. Aren’t we glad that we’re more enlightened?

I snickered the first couple of times I saw the story, but then I started looking at the things that surround me.

At any given moment that my laptop is open, I have a minimum of six programs in operation.

During the course of writing this column, I checked Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Gmail at least three times apiece.

In fact, I’ll admit that for longer projects, my productivity is dependent on the Internet-blocking software program Freedom.

I’ve recommended it to more than a dozen people, all of whom have admitted the same.

My desk at home is piled high with half-finished New Yorker magazines, unreturned Netflix discs, and abandoned to-do lists.

I’m still able to finish reading books — so many people in my life confess to me that they can’t even do this any longer — but reaching the end now feels like completing a marathon.

I comfort myself with the thought that my attention span hasn’t yet deteriorated to the point where electric shocks seem like a better idea, and that I’m actively trying to reverse what seems to be an inevitable process.

On my iPod there are two podcasts meant to guide me through meditation. (I haven’t completed either of them, but at least I was able to sit through the downloading process.)

I still manage to drag myself to the swimming pool or the yoga class on a regular basis, both forms of exercise that force me to stay focused on the present moment.

But who am I kidding? These are Sisyphean efforts that only get more difficult with every passing month.

I could blame the pace of “innovations” that turn out to be nothing but distractions, or I could blame everyone else (who wants to bother with mindfulness when everyone else at the dinner table is tapping away on their phone?)

The point is, I can see my own future, and it’s going to be a slow descent into a world of diversion, a world where tasks of substance must go incomplete and no one has any idea why — merely a serious sense of dread that things haven’t gone according to plan.

I suspect that many of you are already there.

It’s enough to make you want to shock yourself.

That’s why after giving the study some thought, I’m greeting it with dread, not smugness. Those study subjects aren’t sad harbingers of the present- they’re our future.

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