“College students were instructed to sit by themselves for up to fifteen minutes in a sparsely furnished, unadorned room and “entertain themselves with their thoughts.” They were allowed to think about whatever they liked, the only rules being that they should remain in their seat and stay awake. Before they entered the room they were obliged to surrender any means of distraction they had about their person, such as cell phones, books, or writing materials. Afterward, they were asked to rate the experience on various scales. Unsurprisingly, a majority reported that they found it difficult to concentrate and their minds had wandered, with around half saying they didn’t enjoy the experience. A subsequent experiment, however, revealed that many found being left alone in an empty room with nothing to occupy their minds so unpleasant (this is, after all, what makes solitary confinement such a harsh punishment in prisons) that they would rather give themselves electric shocks. In the first part of this experiment, the volunteers were asked to rate the unpleasantness of a shock delivered via electrodes attached to their ankle and say whether they would pay a small amount of money to avoid having to experience it again. In the second part, during which they were left alone with their thoughts for fifteen minutes, they were presented with the opportunity to zap themselves once again. Amazingly, among those who had said they would pay to avoid a repeat experience, 67 percent of the men (12 out of 18) and 25 percent of the women (6 out of 24) opted to shock themselves at least once. One of the women gave herself nine electric shocks. One of the men subjected himself to no fewer than 190 shocks, though he was considered exceptional—a statistical “outlier”—and his results were excluded from the final analysis. In their report for the journal Science, the researchers write, “What is striking is that simply being alone with their own thoughts for 15 minutes was apparently so aversive that it drove many participants to self-administer an electric shock that they had earlier said they would pay to avoid.” This goes a long way toward explaining why many people initially find it so hard to meditate, because to sit quietly with your eyes closed is to invite the mind to wander here, there, and everywhere. In a sense, that is the whole point: we are simply learning to notice when this has happened. So the frustrating realization that your thoughts have been straying—yet again—is a sign of progress rather than failure. Only by noticing the way thoughts ricochet about inside our heads like ball bearings in a pinball machine can we learn to observe them dispassionately and simply let them come to rest, resisting the urge to pull back the mental plunger and fire off more of them. One of the benefits of meditation is that one develops the ability to quiet the mind at will. “Without such training,” the psychologists conclude drily in their paper, “people prefer doing to thinking, even if what they are doing is so unpleasant they would normally pay to avoid it. The untutored mind does not like to be alone with itself.”


James Kingsland, Siddhartha's Brain: Unlocking the Ancient Science of Enlightenment
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Siddhartha's Brain: Unlocking the Ancient Science of Enlightenment Siddhartha's Brain: Unlocking the Ancient Science of Enlightenment by James Kingsland
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