French philosopher Blaise Pascal said:

All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit in a quiet room alone.

How hard is it to sit alone in an empty room with absolutely nothing to do for 15 minutes? No distractions. No cellphone. No magazines. No window to gaze out of. It couldn’t be that hard, right?

According to the results of a recent study, participants found being alone with their thoughts surprisingly challenging. In fact, some found it so difficult that they resorted to giving themselves electric shocks to interrupt the boredom. Before the alone time began, the researchers administered a brief electric shock to demonstrate what it would feel like. Most participants described it as unpleasant. Some even said that they would pay money not to be shocked again.

That changed once the experiment was underway. In the 15 minutes of solitude, 67% of the men and 25% of the women zapped themselves. Even the researchers were shocked by the shocks. “I’m still just puzzled by that,” commented one.

It is tempting to blame the overuse of devices to provide non-stop entertainment and distraction. Interestingly, however, difficulty being alone was unrelated to age or use of technology. A grandmother was as miserable as a college freshman when forced to entertain herself.

Perhaps the best explanation for this “shocking” behavior is the “scanner hypothesis” which posits that mammals have evolved to monitor their environment for change and to scan for danger and opportunities. As the lead researcher describes:

It would be a little odd to see a chimpanzee posed like Rodin’s thinker for extended periods of time.

In other words, there may be an evolutionary explanation for being hyper-vigilant and feeling restless when left alone with one’s thoughts. Forcing oneself to focus internally may feel uncomfortable and unnatural.

That said, there is also an advantage to being alone with one’s thoughts. In fact, studies show that solitude is crucial for the development of the self. As highlighted in a study entitled, Solitude: An Exploration of Benefits of Being Alone, solitude is associated with freedom, creativity, intimacy, and spirituality.

Spending time alone means growing spiritually, discovering your identity without outside distractions, having the freedom to do what you want without needing to cater to other people’s wants and thriving creatively.

Meditation and other relaxation techniques are useful ways to make downtime more tolerable and also productive. By gaining control over our thoughts, the little annoyances like traffic jams and waiting rooms become less stressful and the big questions become less daunting.