By Arlington County (Downed Power Lines Pole, uploaded by AlbertHerring) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

By Arlington County (Downed Power Lines Pole, uploaded by AlbertHerring) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.

A recent article in the journal “Science,” which garnered national news attention, found that most people (especially men) would rather endure electric shocks than sit alone with their thoughts.

When a storm took the power out in my neighborhood for ten hours this weekend, I didn’t even have the option of an invigorating zap. Talk about being alone with one’s thoughts. I couldn’t drive anywhere that had power because my garage door opens via electricity, and the double-wide door is too heavy to open manually by myself.

The article, led by Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia, described the results of eleven studies, which found that when left alone in a room by themselves for six to fifteen minutes, people would rather do mundane tasks than sit and think, and that many preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves given the alternative of being alone with their thoughts.

Sixty-seven percent of men gave themselves at least one shock during the thinking period. On average, study participants zapped themselves 1.47 times in a fifteen-minute interval, not including one “outlier” who administered one hundred ninety shocks to himself. (!)

The authors contend the problem is that thinking is too complicated and our minds are too unruly. Without the training offered by meditation and other techniques, they say that the “untutored mind does not like to be alone with itself.” I think this is true, and it’s something that Elizabeth Gilbert learned in her book, “Eat, Pray, Love.” Since reading her book a few years ago, I’ve been dabbling in some meditation and mind-focusing techniques. But given my peri-menopausal-messed-up-hormonal-state at times, these attempts can be challenging.

But the attempts seemed to have served me well during the power outage. Had I been desperate, I could have biked somewhere, but truth is, I rather enjoyed living without electricity for a while. As if it were all planned, I had plenty of no-cook food available, an 800-page book (“Written in My Own Heart’s Blood” by Diana Gabaldon) and an outdoors painting job to keep me occupied. Sure, I went through Facebook and Email withdrawal, but when the power finally came back on, I found I didn’t miss much.

In fact, unlike the study participants, I wasn’t afraid to sit and think (and better yet, feel!) The lack of distractions helped me piece together an emotional puzzle I’ve been working on for four years. I can’t say that I liked what I discovered, but at least the picture on the puzzle is much clearer.


9 thoughts on “Powerless

  1. Hi Jennifer. Of course, the researchers are scientists, so they focused on people’s thoughts. But I suspect that people are really afraid of being alone with their feelings. Think of the lengths that people go to not deal with their feelings (drinking, drugs, medication, etc.) I bet that’s what’s really going on. We are so used to distractions, that when they go away, we don’t know what to do!

  2. I have even considered intentionally turning the power off (haven’t done it so far; my roommate didn’t exactly see the virtue) to sort of force my own hand. With no power, you must look at most things in your world/environment differently. Plus, I am so wildly appreciative when it comes back on.

    • Thanks for visiting my blog! Turning off the power WOULD be a good exercise, but I suppose it would be too easy knowing you could just turn it back on, if needed. Another option is going camping. I’ve done a lot of camping and I think that’s helped me not freak out when the power’s out.

      • That probably helps you to sit with your own thoughts too (and not resort to administering electric shocks to yourself to pass the time! I hope I am never *that* bored with myself.)

  3. Wow, what a fascinating study. I most certainly would NOT shock myself out of boredom, although perhaps just once out of curiosity. I kind of secretly like it when the power goes out — suddenly the pressure is off to be productive. And I imagine what life was like in times without electricity, which is when a lot of my stories take place. I love watching how the loss of power doesn’t affect my animals at all — it reminds me it’s actually not as “essential” to life as we tend to think.

  4. Hi Lacey! Yes, I bet curiosity had something to do with the electric shocks, too. If you’re in a room with nothing else but an electric shocker, why not try it? I’m not sure if that was the case in this study, but I agree with you about curiosity and how we can actually live without power.

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