Pizza or zap?

Things people will do to avoid thought

A few months ago we were in a pizza restaurant. Pop music was playing moderately loudly, and at a nearby table a family was tucking in to pizza. I noticed that their child had a slice of pizza, but also a tablet he was using to watch cartoons.

I'm no expert on child rearing, but I think that the combination of parental interaction and pizza should probably be sufficient excitement for most kids, without having to add pop music and cartoons.

I'm not going to argue that overstimulation will lead to a generation with no ability to focus. The idea that attention spans are getting smaller and smaller is a myth. However, it does seem to me that people are increasingly unable to tolerate boredom.

Remember what it was like to be dragged to the supermarket with your mother? Remember the boredom of long car rides? Waiting for the bus? Sitting and daydreaming? It seems like every available second has to be filled with sensory input nowadays.

In a 2014 study, scientists recruited students to take part in a study of “thinking periods”. During one of the experiments, subjects were placed in a sparsely furnished room and asked to sit quietly for 15 minutes and think about whatever they wanted. Also in the room was an electric shock machine. 67% of men and 25% of women chose to give themselves at least one electric shock, rather than have to just sit with their own thoughts.

At the gym, almost every exercise machine has a video screen attached. You can watch TV while you exercise, and not risk the chance of thinking about what you're doing, or allowing your mind to drift to the subject of your everyday life. Me, I prefer to go into a meditative state while swimming. The most focused thing I've done is spend exercise sessions teaching myself the NATO alphabet.

I find myself wondering if the human brain is capable of dealing with non stop input. It seems likely to me that human life was filled with periods of boredom for millions of years, and that our brains are evolved to make use of periods of reflection. Maybe we should be teaching kids that sitting quietly for a few minutes with no external stimuli isn't just a form of punishment.