How much time do you spend talking to yourself? If you put the question this way, it often makes people uncomfortable. An alternative phrasing: how much time do you spend engaged in “directed conscious thought”? This is what Tim Wilson et al investigated in a new paper published in Science. It’s exactly the sort of work I’m looking forward to engaging with when I start my sociology of thinking project later in the year:
The ability to engage in directed conscious thought is an integral part—perhaps even a defining part—of what makes us human. Unique among the species, we have the ability to sit and mentally detach ourselves from our surroundings and travel inward, recalling the past, envisioning the future, and imagining worlds that have never existed. Neural activity during such inward-directed thought, called default-mode processing, has been the focus of a great deal of attention in recent years, and researchers have speculated about its possible functions (1–5). Two related questions, however, have been overlooked: Do people choose to put themselves in default mode by disengaging from the external world? And when they are in this mode, is it a pleasing experience?
Recent survey results suggest that the answer to the first question is “not very often.” Ninety-five percent of American adults reported that they did at least one leisure activity in the past 24 hours, such as watching television, socializing, or reading for pleasure, but 83% reported they spent no time whatsoever “relaxing or thinking” (6). Is this because people do not enjoy having nothing to do but think?
Much psychological research has tended to investigate the role of external distractions in interrupting introspective activity. However Wilson et al contest that “it is surprisingly difficult to think in enjoyable ways even in the absence of competing external demands”. My problem with time use surveys as a method for investigating this is that it conflates internal conversation with making the time for internal conversation. The former is so ubiquitous that it often escapes our notice and failing to make time for it doesn’t mean that we don’t do it. In fact I’d suggest making time for internal conversation reflects a certain mode of orientation towards one’s inner life that is much more strongly evidenced in some people than others. Furthermore, considering the social conditions propitious towards time for reflection immediately places us within the sphere of sociological questions of autonomy, power and labour that represents one of the main contributions that Sociology can make to the study of thinking. Unless we sustain a strong distinction between internal conversation as a ubiquitous activity and the recognition & valuation of one’s own internal conversation (so as to attempt to make time for it etc) these important ‘internal’ and ‘external’ issues start to look a lot murkier and less susceptible to investigation. This is by no means a dismissal of their empirical value, rather a simple note of caution about how they are interpreted.
That said I like the way the two questions are articulated:
Do people choose to put themselves in default mode by disengaging from the external world?
And when they are in this mode, is it a pleasing experience?
I just think there’s a sociological complexity to them which the authors, entirely understandably, don’t acknowledge in this paper. My favourite representation of the pleasure of ‘disengagement’ comes from the Simpsons. Here it is presented as a soothing retreat from the world, tuning out external demands as Homer becomes mesmerised by the monkey ‘in’ his head. Eventually his reflexivity kicks in and the monkey tells him to attend to his circumstances:
However what happens if the monkey isn’t willing to offer direction? I do think that there are many forms of retreat which constitute escapism, with soothing rituals or incantations (or narcotics) serving to dull the incessant demands of our circumstances and offer us temporary relief from the necessity of responding to them. However it’s the necessity of responding, the fact that daily life throws up continual challenges about what to do and how to do it, which is what makes internal conversation so charged and so challenging. It’s draining to make decisions all the time (and this is another area that’s spawned a vast psychological literature I want to engage with properly) and the intensity of this imperative to make decisions is historically variable and sociologically complex. This is the second major contribution that Sociology makes to the study of thinking – the (re)introduction of historical change and the macroscopic context and, with this, an awareness of the divergent forms of agency which have emerged within that context, been shaped by it and contributed to shaping it. That said, I found the experimental results really interesting:
To address these questions, we conducted studies in which college-student participants spent time by themselves in an unadorned room (for 6 to 15 min, depending on the study) after storing all of their belongings, including cell phones and writing implements. They were typically asked to spend the time entertaining themselves with their thoughts, with the only rules being that they should remain in their seats and stay awake. After this “thinking period,” participants answered questions about how enjoyable the experience was, how hard it was to concentrate, etc.
Table 1 summarizes the results of six studies that followed this procedure. Most participants reported that it was difficult to concentrate (57.5% responded at or above the midpoint of the point scale) and that their mind wandered (89.0% responded at or above the midpoint of the scale), even though there was nothing competing for their attention. And on average, participants did not enjoy the experience very much: 49.3% reported enjoyment that was at or below the midpoint of the scale.
I was initially very sceptical about Margaret Archer’s argument that portable music, so as to effectively provide a soundtrack to your life, reduces the time available for internal conversation. Until I persistently interrogated my own experience & realising that I could see her point – music often intensifies my inner experience but erodes its directedness, I think and feel more but I don’t tend to have sustained internal conversations in the way I often do when I’m not listening to music on headphones. She makes a similar argument about social networking. Again, I’ve been initially sceptical but I’m gradually proving more open to the idea, largely because I can see using these sites can be compulsive (“I’ll just quickly check Twitter”) and that compulsions can often serve the same purpose as the monkey in Homer’s head, helping us tune out the demands the world is placing upon us and the intensity of our relation to them. However the findings of this study don’t support this and they also challenge the broader theoretical claim about the social diversity of human reflexivity:
To see whether the difficulty with “just thinking” is distinctive to college students, in study 9 we recruited community participants at a farmer’s market and a local church. The participants ranged in age from 18 to 77 (median age = 48.0 years). As in study 7, they completed the study online in their own homes, after receiving instructions to do so when they were alone and free of any external distractions. The results were similar to those found with college students. There was no evidence that enjoyment of the thinking period was related to participants’ age, education, income, or the frequency with which they used smart phones or social media (table S2).