A lighthearted look at news, events, culture and everyday life in New York. The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.
By Nina Pajak
Happy first week after Independence Day! For some, this means the season has truly started in earnest. For others, it’s a sad and ominous wakeup call that fall will be here before we know it and we’ve barely made it through the first five items on our summer to-do list. To kick it off, here’s a depressing bit of insight into the current human condition.
You know that thing where it seems like no one knows how to be alone with their thoughts for a few minutes, including you? And by you, I mean me? Like when you’re walking to the subway and you can’t go two blocks before your fingers start itching for your phone? Just for a second. Just a quick look to see if you got any emails. Any texts. Any voicemails. Any new Instagram likes. Any, uh. Um. Oh, I should give my friend a quick call. Oh, she’s not there. Maybe my mom. My brother? My plumber. My credit card company. My—ah! Here we are at the subway, that was quick. Phew.
Well, I’m not alone, and neither are you. You might be thinking: thank goodness, isn’t that the whole point? But no, you’d be fooling yourself. It’s just that we’re all together in our inability to simply exist. According to a study recently published in the journal Science, researchers found that people not only cannot bear to sit and think quietly for fifteen minutes, but they’d actually rather sustain unpleasant electroshocks than doing so.
According to the press release, participants were asked to spend anywhere from six to fifteen minutes sitting alone and thinking. They were even given advance warning so that they could concoct a subject matter in advance, so as to enhance concentration and make the time more fulfilling. Sounds okay, right? Wrong. Most people reported either cheating and looking at or listening to something, and many described it as downright unpleasant. You’re going to say: well, these kids today and their dang smartscreens and the Facestagram and the tweeping and all these durn screens dagnabbit mumble mumble grumble grumble. Wrong again: researchers experimented using people of all ages, ranging from 18 to 77, and the results were all the same. So shut it, gramps.
Even when they introduced the idea of a negative stimuli (the mild voltage shock) as an alternative to just thinking about something for a few stinking minutes, people proved disappointing. Twelve out of eighteen men chose to shock themselves (one guy, who may or may not have some sort of study-warping fetish, a whopping 190 times in fifteen minutes). In a point for my gender, only six out of 24 women chose to shock themselves. Scientists explained this by pointing to a man’s greater need for sensory experiences, but sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and sometimes a man is just kind of a dope.
What’s to become of us if we can’t concentrate on a single thought for a few minutes? If we can’t stand being in a room by ourselves with the sole task of using our brains? And what is to become of our brains? Our poor, overstimulated thinkamajigs? It’s tempting to read about this and see the downfalls of our smartphone age writ large. and even forecast our society’s ultimate demise. Will anyone ever invent anything again? Will philosophy and literature and art and music and deep thinking simply grind to a halt one day? Our forefathers didn’t have this problem. Even my dog can do that, I (like to) think. Certainly, our children can do it.
But fear not, for we are not necessarily the victims of an overly app-ified culture. Researchers believe that rather than our devices ruining our attention spans, it’s the other way around. The devices feed a preexisting inability to focus, and we cannot resist them because we naturally prefer it that way. So basically, we were always this useless and absurd, but we just finally have the freedom to be ourselves.
Well. I’m glad I could end this on a high note. Unfortunately, I no longer have any idea what I’m talking about because I’ve watched three YouTube videos and posted a photo on Facebook and read various fractions of myriad articles during the course of writing. So anyway—what? Ugh, boring. Bye.
Nina Pajak is a writer living with her husband, daughter and dog in Queens. Connect with Nina on Twitter!