Research Articles

Original research and reliable science journalism about research. Note: be a little careful about science reporting in the mainstream media, it can be less than accurate.

  • 10 Feb 2019 8:05 AM | Tim Burnett (Administrator)

    One of the fascinating parts of my brief radio interview with Bill Radke on KUOW (Seattle NPR) was his strong interest in whether mindfulness would help people "keep their edge." 

    This poorly titled article summarizing some research relevant to this in the Harvard Business Review is work reading Mindfulness Is Demotivating

    In the study described the authors found that a brief mindfulness intervention left participations reporting being "less motivated" and more relaxed and yet they performed the task just fine - in some cases even better than the "motivated" non-meditators in the study.

    So maybe we can be less "edgy" but equally productive. Does being productive and focussed have to mean tense and on edge? I'm a big advocate for the combination of being alert and relaxed.

    I often mention in class that we're used to the combinations of alert and tense and the opposite which seems to be relaxed and spaced out. How about taking the best of both extremes: alert and relaxed and living that way?

    We'll still get stuff done but perhaps at less of a stress cost and with more pleasure and, most importantly, we may retain the ability to switch off the relentless impulse towards constant productivity when it's not serving us.

  • 3 Jan 2019 10:18 AM | Michael Kelberer (Administrator)

    As the holiday season draws to a close, many of us may be struggling with the extra weight we put on during extensive, food-filled celebrations with family and friends. Can mindfulness techniques come to our aid in getting rid of those extra pounds?

    Article from Medical News Today - CLICK HERE

  • 13 Oct 2017 8:09 PM | Tim Burnett (Administrator)

    Compassion is when we can meet suffering with awareness and a desire to help. Research such as this study described here suggest that compassion is a very different thing than just being empathetic.

    Original article:

    A new neuroscientific study shows that compassion training can help us cope with other people's distress.

    Empathy can be painful.

    Or so suggests a growing body of neuroscientific research. When we witness suffering and distress in others, our natural tendency to empathize can bring us vicarious pain.

    Is there a better way of approaching distress in other people? A recent study, published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, suggests that we can better cope with others’ negative emotions by strengthening our own compassion skills, which the researchers define as “feeling concern for another’s suffering and desiring to enhance that individual’s welfare.”

    “Empathy is really important for understanding others’ emotions very deeply, but there is a downside of empathy when it comes to the suffering of others,” says Olga Klimecki, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Germany and the lead author of the study. “When we share the suffering of others too much, our negative emotions increase. It carries the danger of an emotional burnout.”

    The research team sent study participants to a one-day loving-kindness meditation class, which utilized techniques and philosophies from Eastern contemplative traditions. Participants, none of whom had prior meditation experience, practiced extending feelings of warmth and care toward themselves, a close person, a neutral person, a person in difficulty, and complete strangers, as a way of developing their compassion skills.

    Both before and after the training, participants were shown videos of people in distress (e.g., crying after their home was flooded). Following exposure to each video, the researchers measured the subjects’ emotional responses through a survey. Their brain activity was also recorded using an fMRI machine, a device that tracks real-time blood-flow in the brain, thereby enabling the scientists to see what brain areas were active in response to viewing the videos.

    They found that the compassion training led participants to experience significantly more positive emotion when viewing the distressing videos. In other words, they seemed better able to cope with distress than they did before the training—and they coped better than a control group that did not receive the compassion training.

    “Through compassion training, we can increase our resilience and approach stressful situations with more positive affect,” says Klimecki.

    The positive emotional approach was accompanied by a change in brain activation pattern: Before the training, participants showed activity in an “empathic” network associated with pain perception and unpleasantness; after the training, activity shifted to a “compassionate” network that has been associated with love and affiliation.

    Their new brain-activation patterns more closely resembled those of an “expert” who had meditated every day on compassion for more than 35 years, whose brain was scanned by the researchers to provide a point of comparison. This result suggests that the training brought about fundamental changes in the ways their brains processed distressing scenes, strengthening the parts that try to alleviate suffering—an example of neuroplasticity, when the brain physically evolves in response to experience.

    Negative emotions did not disappear after the loving-kindness training; it’s just that the participants were less likely to feel distressed themselves. According to Klimecki and her colleagues, this suggests that the training allowed participants to stay in touch with the negative emotion from a calmer mindset. “Compassion is a good antidote,” says Klimecki. “It allows us to connect to others’ suffering, without being too distressed.”

    The main takeaway is that we can shape our own emotional reactions, and can alter the way we feel and respond to certain situations. In other words, says Klimecki, “Our emotions are not set in stone.” 

    So is taking a compassion course like the one offered through this study the only way to build compassion? Not necessarily. Research suggests you can cultivate a compassionate mindset through encouraging cooperation, practicing mindfulness, refraining from placing blame on others, acting against inequality, and being receptive to others’ feelings without adopting those feelings as your own.

  • 24 Aug 2017 6:30 PM | Tim Burnett (Administrator)


    Physicians and other healthcare providers are under extreme and growing risk for burnout, and psychological distress as a result of on-the-job stressors. In 2012, Shanafelt et al reported that nearly half of physicians report at least one symptom of burnout. In 2015, Shanafelt et al did a follow up study that demonstrated burnout and satisfaction with work-life balance in US physicians worsened from 2011 to 2014. They indicate that more than half of US physicians are now experiencing professional burnout.

    The evidence is growing that burnout in trainees, as well as in practicing physicians, comes at a cost to the physicians, those they interact with at home and work, and their patients (McClarrerty 2014).  Burnout has the potential to lead to professional consequences such as medical errors, poor judgment and adverse patient outcomes. It also has the potential to lead to personal consequences such as depression, anxiety, substance use, and suicide. (Freischlag & Shanafelt 2009).

    While the effects on the individual alone are concerning, the organizational and patient safety impact of burnout can be equally severe.  Research solidly correlates physician burnout with disruptive behavior, increased medical errors, lower patient satisfaction scores, and increased malpractice risk (Freischlag & Shanafelt 2009).   Additionally, burnout adversely impacts quality of care and patient outcomes. And research suggests that when physicians are down and running low on empathy, their patients take longer to recover from illnesses and are less likely to adhere to treatment recommendations (Rakel et al 2011, Canale et al 2012).

    Mindfulness training is a part of the solution. Research and program pilot studies using mindfulness based training for physicians, residents, and medical students has demonstrated improvement in quality of life, well-being, symptoms of burn-out, depression, total mood disturbance and anxiety (Krasner & Epstien 2009, Luken & Sammons 2016, Regebr et al 2014, Hassed et al 2009, Rosenzweig et al 2003).

    While the most studied and “gold standard” mindfulness training intervention, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), has been shown to be quite effective (Kabat-Zinn 1990, 1982, 2002) in increasing resiliency and reducing risk of a long list of psychological and physiological ailments this 8-week, 26 hour, training is difficult to schedule for most clinicians.

    Our Mindfulness for Healthcare Professions includes the core elements of MBSR in a briefer and more concentrated format and is similar in scale to several mindfulness training interventions which have proven effective (Fourtney et al 2013, Schoroeder et al 2015).

    Preliminary data we’ve collected suggests our course results in a decrease of symptoms of burnout, increased trait mindfulness, and decreased perceived stress. Specifically, the data showed an increase in mindfulness of 10.5%, a decrease in perceived stress of 20.6%, a reduction in depersonalization of 14.7%, and smaller gains in emotional exhaustion (6.4%) and an increased sense of efficacy (7.8%).


    1.     Shanafelt, T. Boone, S, Litjen, T, Dyrbye, L, Sotile, W, Satele, D, West, C., Sloan, Jl, Oteskovich, M. (2012). Burnout and Satisfaction With Work-Life Balance Among US Physicians Relative to the General US Population.  Arch Intern Med, 172(18),1377-1385. doi:10.1001
    2.    Shanafelt, T. et al. (2015). Changes in Burnout and Satisfaction With Work-Life Balance in Physicians and the General US Working Population Between 2011 and 2014. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 90 (12),1600–1613.  
    3.    Pantaleoni JL, Augustine EM, Sourkes BM, Bachrach LK. (2014). Burnout in pediatric residents over a 2-year period: a longitudinal study. Acad Pediatr, 14(2), 167–172.
    4.    Lee, RT, Ashforth,  BE. (1990). On the meaning of Maslach’s three dimensions of burnout.  J Appl Psychol, 75, 743- 747.
    5.     6. McClafferty H, Brown OW. (2014). Section on Integrative Medicine; Committee on Practice and Ambulatory Medicine; Section on Integrative Medicine. Physician health and wellness. Pediatrics, 134(4), 830–835.
    6.    Balch C., Freischlag J., Shanafelt T. (2009). Stress and Burnout Among Surgeons Understanding and Managing the Syndrome and Avoiding the Adverse Consequences. Arch Surg, 144(4), 371-6.
    7.     Rakel, D., Barrett, B., Zhang, Z., Hoeft, T., Chewning, B., Marchand, L., Schneder, J. (2011). Perception of Empathy in the Therapeutic Encounter:  Effects on the Common Cold.  Patient Education and Counseling Patient Educ Couns, 85(3), 390-7.
    8.    Eel Canale, S., DZ, L., Maio, V., Wang, X., Rossi, G., Hojat, M., Gonnella, JS. (2012). The Relationship Between Physician Empathy and Disease Complications:  An Empirical Study of Primary Care Physicians and Their Diabetic Patients in Parma, Italy.  Acad Med, 87(9), 1243-9.
    9.    Krassner, Epstein. (2009). Association of an educational program in mindful communication with burnout, empathy, and attitudes among primary care physicians. JAMA, 302(12), 1284-93.
    10.  Luken, Michelle and Sammons, Amanda.  (2016). Systematic Review of Mindfulness Practice for Reducing Job Burnout.  Am J Occup Ther,70(2), 7002250020p1–7002250020p10, doi:  10.5014/ajot.2016.016956
    11.   Regebr, C et al.  (2014). Interventions to reduce the consequences of stress in physicians: a review and meta-analysis. J Nerv Ment Dis, 202(5), 353-9.  
    12.  Hassed, C et al. (2009). Enhancing the health of medical students: outcomes of an integrated mindfulness and lifestyle program. Adv Health Sci Educ Theory Pract, 14(3), 387-98.
    13.  T Rosenzweig S,  Reibel DK,  Greeson JM,  Brainard GC, Hojat M. (2003). Mindfulness-based stress reduction lowers psychological distress in medical students. Teach Learn Med., 15(2), 88-92.
    14.  Finkelstein, Claudia et al. (2007). Anxiety and stress reduction in medical education: an intervention.  Medical Education, 41(3), 258-64.
    15.  Fourtney, Luke et al (2013) Abbreviated Mindfulness Intervention for Job Satisfaction, Quality of Life, and Compassion in Primary Care Clinicians: A Pilot Study.  Annals of Fam Med, 11 (5), 412-420.
    16.  Schoroeder, David et al (2015). A Brief Mindfulness-Based Intervention for Primary Care Physicians: A Pilot Randomized Controlled Trial.  American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine,  20 (10), 1-9 DOI: 10.1177/1559827616629121
    17.  Kabat-Zinn, J. (1982). An outpatient program in behavioral medicine for chronic pain patients based on the practice of mindfulness meditation: Theoretical considerations and preliminary results. General Hospital Psychiatry, 4(1), 33–47.
    18.  Kabat-Zinn, J. (1990). Full catastrophe living. Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain and illness. New York, NY: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing.
    19.  Kabat-Zinn, J. (2002). Commentary on Majumdar et al.: Mindfulness meditation and health. Journal of Alternative & Complementary Medicine, 8(6), 731–735

  • 4 Jan 2017 10:50 AM | Tim Burnett (Administrator)

    These and other sources indicate that physicians report high levels of distress, which is linked to burnout, attrition, and poorer quality of care. Several studies show that mindfulness interventions have been helpful in dealing with these problems. Article #1, a review of studies on MBSR, reports: “Empirical evidence indicates that participation in MBSR yields benefits for clinicians in the domains of physical and mental health.”

    Although much of the research on mindfulness interventions focuses on the 8-week MBSR class, a pilot study, #7, states that “an abbreviated mindfulness training course adapted for primary care clinicians was associated with reductions in indicators of job burnout, depression, anxiety, and stress.”

    Krasner et al, Article #2, studied primary care physicians who took the 8-week MBSR class +  a 10-month maintenance phase of 2.5 hours/month.

    The authors reported, 9 months’ post-intervention, “increased mindfulness and less burnout (less emotional exhaustion and greater personal accomplishment, greater empathy, conscientiousness, and emotional stability).” They concluded: “Participation in a mindful communication program was associated with short-term and sustained improvements in well-being and attitudes associated with patient-centered care.”

    In Article #4, a study of these same primary care physicians 3 years after they participated in the course, the authors conclude: “Participants reported three main themes: (1) sharing personal experiences from medical practice with colleagues reduced professional isolation, (2) mindfulness skills improved the participants' ability to be attentive and listen deeply to patients' concerns, respond to patients more effectively, and develop adaptive reserve, and (3) developing greater self-awareness was positive and transformative, yet participants struggled to give themselves permission to attend to their own personal growth.”

    Article #5 adds that not only are the physicians who’ve taken MBSR experiencing less stress and higher levels of self care, but also their participation in the course “resulted in improved patient care.” Article #6 gives greater detail about the relationship between clinicians and patients: “In adjusted analyses comparing clinicians with highest and lowest tertile mindfulness scores, patient visits with high-mindfulness clinicians were more likely to be characterized by a patient-centered pattern of communication (adjusted odds ratio of a patient-centered visit was 4.14; 95% CI, 1.58-10.86), in which both patients and clinicians engaged in more rapport building and discussion of psychosocial issues. Clinicians with high-mindfulness scores also displayed more positive emotional tone with patients (adjusted β = 1.17; 95% CI, 0.46-1.9). Patients were more likely to give high ratings on clinician communication (adjusted prevalence ratio [APR] = 1.48; 95% CI, 1.17-1.86) and to report high overall satisfaction (APR = 1.45; 95 CI, 1.15-1.84) with high-mindfulness clinicians.

    Selected Articles on Mindfulness Interventions with Physicians

    1. Irving JA1, Dobkin PL, Park J. (2009) Cultivating mindfulness in health care professionals: a review of empirical studies of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). Complement Ther Clin Pract. 2009 May;15(2):61-6. doi: 10.1016/j.ctcp.2009.01.002.

    2. Krasner et all (2009) Association of an educational program in mindful communication with burnout, empathy, and attitudes among primary care physicians. JAMA. 2009 Sep 23;302(12):1284-93.

    3. Goodman MJ1, Schorling JB. (2012) A mindfulness course decreases burnout and improves well-being among healthcare providers.  Acad Med. 2012 Jun;87(6):815-9.

    4. Beckman et al (2012) The impact of a program in mindful communication on primary care physicians. Acad Med. 2012 Jun;87(6):815-9.

    5. Brady S1, O'Connor N, Burgermeister D, Hanson P. (2012) The impact of mindfulness meditation in promoting a culture of safety on an acute psychiatric unit., Perspect Psychiatr Care. 2012 Jul;48(3):129-37

    6. Beach et al (2013) A multicenter study of physician mindfulness and health care quality. Ann Fam Med. 2013 Sep-Oct;11(5):421-8.

    7. Fortney et al (2013) Abbreviated mindfulness intervention for job satisfaction, quality of life, and compassion in primary care clinicians: a pilot study. Ann Fam Med. 2013 Sep-Oct;11(5):412-20. doi: 10.1370/afm.1511.

  • 25 Mar 2016 6:15 AM | Tim Burnett (Administrator)

    Tim and our local colleague Carolyn McManus were both involved in this study. It's notable for it's larger sample sized, being a random controlled trial, and being published in a very prestigious journal.

    Mind-Based Therapies May Ease Lower Back Pain

    By RONI CARYN RABIN MARCH 22, 2016 3:47 PM

    Sixty-five million Americans suffer from chronic lower back pain, and many feel they have tried it all: physical therapy, painkillers, shots. Now a new study reports many people may find relief with a form of meditation that harnesses the power of the mind to manage pain.

    The technique, called mindfulness-based stress reduction, involves a combination of meditation, body awareness and yoga, and focuses on increasing awareness and acceptance of one’s experiences, whether they involve physical discomfort or emotional pain. People with lower back pain who learned the meditation technique showed greater improvements in function compared to those who had cognitive behavioral therapy, which has been shown to help ease pain, or standard back care.

    Participants assigned to meditation or cognitive behavior therapy received eight weekly two-hour sessions of group training in the techniques. After six months, those learning meditation had an easier time doing things like getting up out of a chair, going up the stairs and putting on their socks, and were less irritable and less likely to stay at home or in bed because of pain. They were still doing better a year later.

    The findings come amid growing concerns about opioid painkillers and a surge of overdose deaths involving the drugs. At the beginning of the trial, 11 percent of the participants said they had used an opioid within the last week to treat their pain, and they were allowed to continue with their usual care throughout the trial.

    “This new study is exciting, because here’s a technique that doesn’t involve taking any pharmaceutical agents, and doesn’t involve the side effects of pharmaceutical agents,” said Dr. Madhav Goyal of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, who co-wrote an editorial accompanying the paper.

    Dr. Goyal said he sees many patients with chronic lower back pain who become frustrated when they run out of treatments. “It may not be for everybody,” he said, noting that some people with back pain find yoga painful. “But for people who want to do something where they’re using their own mind to help themselves, it can feel very empowering.”

    One of the strengths of the study, published in JAMA on Tuesday, was its sheer size. It included 342 participants ranging in age from 20 to 70. They were randomly assigned in equal numbers to either mindfulness-based stress reduction, cognitive behavioral therapy, or to continue doing what they were already doing.

    Sixty-one percent of participants who received meditation training experienced meaningful improvement in functioning six months after the program started, slightly more than the 58 percent who improved with cognitive behavioral treatment but far exceeding the 44 percent who improved with their usual care.

    Those who got cognitive behavioral therapy had greater improvement when it came to a measure called “pain bothersomeness,” with 45 percent gaining meaningful improvement compared with 44 percent in the meditation group. But both these treatments were more effective than the usual treatment, which led to improvement in only 27 percent of people.

    The benefits were limited, but that’s not really surprising, said the study’s lead author, Daniel Cherkin of Group Health Research Institute in Seattle. “There are no panaceas here. No treatment for nonspecific back pain has been found to make a whole lot of difference for many people.” While some treatments may help some people, he said, they don’t work well for others, which is why it’s important to be able to offer lots of options.

    Mindfulness-based stress reduction was developed in the 1970s by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a scientist in Massachusetts who adapted Buddhist meditation practices for an American audience. The goal is for meditators to increase their awareness of their experience and of “how it’s affecting them and how they’re responding to it,” said Dr. Cherkin, adding that the idea is for participants “to change their mind-set and, in a way, almost befriend the pain, and not feel it’s oppressing them.”

    The new study is the second showing that meditation may help people manage chronic lower back pain. Earlier this month, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicinereported in JAMA Internal Medicine that mindfulness meditation helped older adults manage their pain for up to six months, though the improvements in function did not persist.

    Access to mindfulness-based stress reduction can be problematic, however. Training by certified instructors is not available everywhere, and may not be covered by health insurance.

    But the need is tremendous. Back pain is a leading cause of disability worldwide and the second most common cause of disability for American adults.

    One in four adults in the United States has had a bout of back pain within the past month, according to national health figures, and back pain that has no clear underlying cause can be tough to treat, often improving only to flare up again weeks to months later.

    Dr. Cherkin said mindfulness-based stress reduction may be particularly helpful for people because even if their use lapses, they develop a skill they can draw on later when they need it.

    “That suggests that training the mind has potential to change people on a more lasting basis than doing a manipulation of the spine or massage of the back,” techniques that may be “effective in the short term but lose effects over time,” Dr. Cherkin said. “You can practice it by waiting at the bus stop and just breathing.”


    Actual journal article: Effects of MBSR vs TAU on Back Pain - Cherkin, Sherman et al 2016.pdf

  • 4 Mar 2015 3:42 PM | Tim Burnett (Administrator)

    This just in from the American Mindfulness Research Association which offers a monthly summary of recent mindfulness research:

    Can mindfulness training increase real-life
    compassionate behavior? To address this question,
    Lem[PLOS One] randomly assigned 69
    college undergraduates to either a mindfulness
    meditation (MM) or cognitive skills (CS) program.
    Both programs were delivered over self-guided web-
    based smartphone apps. A total of 56 participants
    completed the three week long interventions. The
    MM participants engaged in 14 mindfulness
    meditation sessions lasting an average of 12 minutes
    each. The sessions did not include loving-kindness
    or compassion content. The CS participants engaged
    in 14 game-playing sessions designed to enhance
    memory, attention, speed, and problem solving.

    After completing the intervention, participants were
    asked to visit a waiting area that contained three
    chairs, two of which were already occupied by
    alleged “participants,” who were actually researcher
    confederates (actors who played participants), and
    the third of which was to be occupied by the
    participant. As they sat waiting, another confederate
    entered with crutches and a walking boot, acting as
    if in pain. The seated confederates showed
    indifference to the newcomer. Researchers then
    observed whether or not the participants yielded
    their seats to the newcomer.

    MM participants were more than twice as likely to
    yield their chairs than were CS participants (37 vs.
    14 ). This increase in compassionate behavior was
    not accompanied by an increased ability to judge
    other’s emotions; MM and CS participants did not
    differ on that variable.

    The results support the ability of mindfulness
    training to help a person to act compassionately to
    others. Smartphone apps can potentially extend the
    benefits of mindfulness training to those who would
    otherwise lack access to and the time for more
    immersive programs. Future research can
    determine whether more immersive programs
    might result in larger benefits and help clarify the
    underlying mechanisms for enhancement of
    compassion through mindfulness training.

  • 25 Oct 2014 12:59 PM | Tim Burnett (Administrator)

    This fascinating article from Dr. Susan Fiske at Princeton examines how the brain seems to rapidly categorize people we perceive into 4 categories. A kind neural baseline for empathy vs. prejudice. She even shows that some people are seem as non-human by the mind, but happily we can rehumanize people again. Worth a bit of a careful science paper read. Dense but not unreadable and just 4 pages long.

    week 6 - Fiske2009NeuroimaingStudiesonEmpathy.pdf  [earlier broken link fixed - 10/28/2014]

  • 19 Jul 2014 2:42 PM | Tim Burnett (Administrator)

    We often cite this fascinating (and very readable) experience sample study out of Harvard Psychology.

    Killingsworth & Gilbert (2010) A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind.pdf

    Matthew Killingsworth collected a lot of data and makes two really interesting and important assertions:

    1) People's minds wander about half the time

    2) We are generally happier if we are paying attention to the task we're doing, regardless of what that task might be. Doing a desirable task does affect our happiness, but paying attention matters more.

  • 19 Jul 2014 2:39 PM | Tim Burnett (Administrator)

    People would rather be electrically shocked than left alone with their thoughts

    Nadia is a news intern at Science.

    At some point today you will disengage from the rest of the world and just think. It could happen any number of ways: if your mind wanders from work, while you're sitting in traffic, or if you just take a quiet moment to reflect. But as frequently as we drift into our own thoughts, a new study suggests that many of us don't like it. In fact, some people even prefer an electric shock to being left alone with their minds.

    “I'm really excited to see this paper,” says Matthew Killingsworth, a psychologist at the University of California (UC), San Francisco, who says his own work has turned up a similar result. “When people are spending time inside their heads, they're markedly less happy.”

    To conduct the study, Timothy Wilson, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and colleagues recruited hundreds of undergraduate student volunteers and community members to take part in “thinking periods.” Individuals were placed in sparsely furnished rooms and asked to put away their belongings, such as cellphones and pens. They then were given one of two tests that lasted between 6 and 15 minutes. While some were told to think about whatever they wanted, others chose from several prompts, such as going out to eat or playing a sport, and planned out how they would think about it during the period.

    Afterward, the team asked the volunteers to rate their experience on a nine-point scale, where the higher the number, the more enjoyable their time was. In both the free-thinking and planned-prompt scenarios, about 50% of people did not like the experience, reporting an enjoyment level at or below the midpoint of the scale. Participants generally gave high ratings of boredom, too, according to Wilson.

    To see if a change of scenery would help, the team let participants do the studies in their own homes, but still found similar results. Overall, the subjects said they enjoyed activities like reading and listening to music about twice as much as just thinking.

    The researchers then decided to take the experiment a step further. For 15 minutes, the team left participants alone in a lab room in which they could push a button and shock themselves if they wanted to. The results were startling: Even though all participants had previously stated that they would pay money to avoid being shocked with electricity, 67% of men and 25% of women chose to inflict it on themselves rather than just sit there quietly and think, the team reports online today in Science.

    “We went into this thinking it wouldn’t be that hard for people to entertain themselves,” Wilson says. “We have this huge brain and it’s stuffed full of pleasant memories, and we have the ability to construct fantasies and stories. We really thought this [thinking time] was something people would like.”

    He suggests that the results may be mixed signs of boredom and the trouble that we have controlling our thoughts. “I think [our] mind is built to engage in the world,” he says. “So when we don’t give it anything to focus on, it’s kind of hard to know what to do.”

    Although daydreaming is spontaneous and can be enjoyable, Wilson says the pressure to think on commandundefinedwhether it’s being demanded by researchers, or while you’re waiting in line with nothing else to doundefinedmay be what’s difficult and unpleasant for so many.

    “I found it quite surprising and a bit disheartening that people seem to be so uncomfortable when left to their own devices; that they can be so bored that even being shocked seemed more entertaining,” says Jonathan Schooler, a psychology professor at UC Santa Barbara who studies consciousness. “But I can't help but feel that there has to be more to the story. I'm confident that there are conditions in which at least a subsample of the population enjoys this quiet opportunity for self-reflection.”

    Some people seem to enjoy thinking more than others. For instance, the study found that people who are more agreeable or cooperative were more likely to enjoy themselves when they were told to think about anything. Individuals who admitted that their daydreams normally leave them happy fared better, too.

    Because people so often find themselves intentionally or unintentionally wrapped up in their thoughts, the research team suggests that meditation or other techniques to relax and learn how to gain control of the mind could be helpful. If we knew how to steer our thoughts in a pleasant direction and enjoy the experience, maybe we wouldn’t hate to be alone with ourselves.

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