Listen to Yourself Churn

The first ride back (FRB) after vacation (or injury) is always the hardest. My muscles have begun to lose their resilience and memory. My endurance has waned. I feel rusty and graceless. And slow. It takes at least one frustrating FRB to rediscover my cadence and find my bliss. This is also true of writing after vacation. Apologies for the awkward first write back.

Vacation, while amazingly fun, made me crave solitude, so I’ve been savoring the peace of home both on and off the bike. Via SGU, there’s a fascinating new study in the journal Science. It turns out that many people don’t like being alone with their own thoughts. Here’s the Editor’s Summary:

Nowadays, we enjoy any number of inexpensive and readily accessible stimuli, be they books, videos, or social media. We need never be alone, with no one to talk to and nothing to do. Wilson et al. explored the state of being alone with one's thoughts and found that it appears to be an unpleasant experience. In fact, many of the people studied, particularly the men, chose to give themselves a mild electric shock rather than be deprived of external sensory stimuli.

The full text is behind a paywall, but the Boston Globe has good coverage of the study:

[...] the researchers either allowed people to sit alone and think, or do an activity such as reading a book or using the Internet — although they weren’t allowed to communicate with others. The people doing activities that distracted them from their own thoughts were much happier.
Timothy Wilson, a University of Virginia psychology professor who led the work, was discussing the weird results in the living room of his Harvard collaborator, psychology professor Daniel Gilbert, and they began brainstorming another experiment. If people found it so unpleasant to be alone with their thoughts, what lengths might they go to in order to escape themselves?
To answer this question, they started by exposing volunteers to positive and negative stimuli, including beautiful photographs and mildly painful electric shocks. They asked the people how much they would pay to avoid the shock experience if they had $5 to spend. Then, the researchers told the 55 participants to sit in a room and think for 15 minutes. If they wanted, they also had the option to shock themselves by pressing a button, feeling a jolt resembling a severe static shock on their ankle.

Two-thirds of the men chose to shock themselves, while a quarter of the women did. One person shocked himself 190 times. (!)  In fifteen minutes. According to my calculations, that’s an average rate of one shock every 4.7 seconds. Dude couldn’t listen to himself churn for even five seconds.

Maybe it’s even worse than that. Maybe he resisted the urge for the first ten minutes, then completely lost his shit and just started banging on the shock button like a rhesus monkey.

I was talking to my Trophy Husband about this research last night, and he posits that there might be a competitive component for the people who shock themselves multiple times. Where I (and the researchers) view the sitting still part as the challenge, he thinks the real challenge for test subjects lies in shocking themselves as many times as possible. As a demonstration of power and social status. He imagines the 190 times scenario going down like this:

Dude sits calmly for the first few minutes.

He starts thinking about the electric shock, wondering how strong it is and if he can take it.

So he tries it.


It hurts, but not terribly. If he can do one, can he take two?



How many did the last guy do?

What’s the record number of times?

Fifteen minutes and 190 electric shocks later, Dude staggers out, looks around at the researchers and shouts,

“One hundred and ninety, bitches! Did I win?”

The Globe article mentions future research into whether people who meditate or practice other forms of mindfulness will have better luck just sitting calmly with their own thoughts. My guess is that people who know how to remain calm will be able to sit calmly.

My favorite cycling website, Velominati, just published a related article about the mindful solitude of cycling. The author, Gianni, doesn’t listen to music when he rides:

I sometimes enjoy the voices in my head. They get me.

Me too, brother.

Gianni goes on to advocate preloading your brain with pleasurable music to avoid the contamination of earworms that will haunt you for the duration of the three-hour ride.

I have to saturate my brain with good music before something terrible gets in there; once it is in there, it is not coming out without a fight. I had an early morning teeth cleaning and while captive in the chair, their office music programming played nothing but Cher for thirty minutes. Oh I thought it was amusing at the time. The next day, Cher was still there. I was not amused.
Predawn, rolling along in the truck, bike in the back, something great on the stereo, even if the windshield wipers are on, this is how we get up for a ride. There may only be one song in the head for the next three hours but at least if will be a good one.

Commenter TenB gives a cautionary anecdote:

Even worse than a song is a fragment of one because you can’t remember the words. I did a double century last year, having heard a OneRepublic song in the car the previous day. “You’ve got something I need… Da da da dada da dada da da… And if I only die once, I want do die with youuuuuu!!” Repeated. For 13 hours.

The Velominatae go on to hilairously out-earworm each other in the thread. Click through their links at your own risk!

And remember to preload your brain with good music and interesting thoughts.