"All the World's a Stage We Pass Through" R. Ayana

Saturday, 6 September 2014

People Prefer Electric Shocks to Being Alone With Their Thoughts - And Watching TV Kills Them

People Prefer Electric Shocks to Being Alone With Their Thoughts
And Watching Television Kills Them

Tomás Fano/flickr


A new study finds we're not very good at entertaining ourselves.

Considering the many challenges life has to offer, entertaining yourself with your own thoughts for a few minutes seems like one of the easier hurdles to overcome. You could recall your favorite childhood memory, plan your weekend, or try to solve a problem from work. But it turns out that people find this assignment incredibly hard. And, according to new research, they’ll even resort to giving themselves electric shocks to keep themselves entertained.

“We, like everyone else, noticed how wedded people seem to be to modern technology, and seem to shy away from just using their own thoughts to occupy themselves,” the lead researcher, Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia, told me. “That got us to wondering whether this said something fundamental about people’s ability to do this.”

"We have this huge brain stocked full of pleasant memories and the ability to generate fantasies—surely it can't be that hard to spend a few minutes enjoying yourself with your thoughts."

“So we started out just kind of by the seat of our pants trying stuff to see how easy it was for people to entertain themselves with their own thoughts,” he went on. “With the expectation, to be honest, that it wouldn’t be that hard. We kind of thought, well, we have this huge brain that’s stocked full of pleasant memories and has the ability to generate fantasies, and surely it can’t be that hard to spend a few minutes enjoying yourself with your thoughts. And we just kept doing study after study finding that—for many people, anyway—not so much.”

Wilson reported some of his team’s results at a recent meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, and also published them in Science.

They report on 11 experiments. In most, they asked participants to put away any distractions and entertain themselves with their own thoughts for 6 to 15 minutes. Over the first six studies, 58 percent of participants rated the difficulty at or above the midpoint on a scale (“somewhat”), and 42 percent rated their enjoyment below the midpoint. In the seventh study, participants completed the task at home, and 32 percent admitted to cheating by using their phones, listening to music, or doing anything but just sitting there. (In the lab studies, one participant’s data was tossed because an experimenter had accidentally left a pen behind and the subject used it to write a to-do list. Another’s was tossed because an instruction sheet had been left behind and he used it to practice origami.)

Participants rated the task of entertaining themselves with their own thoughts as far less enjoyable and more conducive to mind-wandering than other mellow activities such as reading magazines or doing crossword puzzles.

In the most, ahem, shocking study, subjects were wired up and given the chance to shock themselves during the thinking period if they desired. They’d all had a chance to try out the device to see how painful it was. And yet, even among those who said they would pay money not to feel the shock again, a quarter of the women and two thirds of the men gave themselves a zap when left with their own thoughts. (One outlier pressed the button 190 times in the 15 minutes.) Commenting on the sudden appeal of electricity coursing through one’s body, Wilson said, “I’m still just puzzled by that.”

Why is entertaining ourselves so hard? Maybe subjects just couldn’t decide where to steer their thoughts? Nope. In several studies, some were offered topics to fantasize about (going on a beautiful hike, etc.), but that tweak had no effect on difficulty or enjoyment.

Maybe modern technology is rotting our brains? Nope. Enjoyment was unrelated to age or the use of smart phones or social media. Wilson says if anything, use of technology is more a symptom than a cause of our difficulty with entertaining ourselves, although there could be circular effects.

"It would be a little odd to see a chimpanzee posed like Rodin's thinker for extended periods of time."

Wilson favors the “scanner hypothesis”: Mammals have evolved to monitor their environments for dangers and opportunities, and so focusing completely internally for several minutes is unnatural. “It would be a little odd to see a chimpanzee posed like Rodin’s thinker for extended periods of time,” he said.

To test the idea, Wilson and his collaborators gave some subjects just a bit of external distraction—a rubber band to fidget with. In other experiments, they told some subjects to monitor a computer screen that would occasional display relevant messages. Compared to enjoyment in the regular thinking task, these alternatives had muddled results—sometimes they led to more enjoyment, sometimes less, sometimes the same amount. Discussing the scanner hypothesis, Wilson noted that the researchers don’t yet have strong evidence, but, he said, “I’m convinced it’s correct.” Anecdotally, reverie’s not so hard when you’re exercising or knitting or staring out the window.

In addition to chasing the scanner hypothesis, Wilson’s team hopes to see if practice makes the task easier. They did find a small correlation between meditation experience and ability to entertain oneself, and they suggest that control over one’s thoughts may be one appeal of meditation. “I suspect that a little practice with just thinking pleasant thoughts in one form or another could work too,” Wilson offered, before laughing. “As I say that, it sounds sort of audacious to say, well, the Buddhists have had two thousand years of mediation training, but I can train people to do it easier. We certainly haven’t succeeded in doing it yet. This is something I want to test.”

From The Atlantic @ http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/07/people-prefer-electric-shocks-to-being-alone-with-their-thoughts/373936/

Hours Spent Watching TV Shorten Life Expectancy


  • The risk of mortality was significantly higher for participants -- university graduates with a mean age of 37 years -- reporting ≥3 hours per day of television viewing than for those reporting <1 day="" found.="" hour="" per="" researchers="" span="">
  • However, computer use and time spent driving, both sedentary behaviors, were not significantly associated with higher mortality.

Watching television for many hours a day was associated with an increased risk for premature death in a study of healthy young adults, while computer use and time spent driving showed no significant association with higher mortality.

Study participants who reported watching 3 or more hours of television daily had a twofold increased death risk over 8 years of follow-up, compared with participants who said their viewing time did not exceed 1 hour a day (incidence rate ratio [IRR] 2.04, 95% CI 1.16-3.57), researcher Miguel Angel Martinez-Gonzales, MD, PhD, of the University of Navarra in Pamplona, Spain, and colleagues wrote in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

Sedentary behavior and increased sitting time have been shown in numerous studies to be associated with higher mortality. But this study is among the first to examine the possible impact of different types of sitting behaviors on death risk in healthy adults, Martinez-Gonzales told MedPage Today.

"Our findings suggested that 1 or even 2 hours of television viewing is OK, but spending more than 3 hours watching television is probably not a good idea," he said, adding that as the population ages, watching television and other sedentary behaviors are likely to become more prevalent.

More than Half of Waking Hours Spent Sitting

Most adults in the U.S. are sedentary during more than half of their waking hours, according to a 2008 study. Earlier research has also suggested a link between increased television viewing time and higher mortality, diabetes and cardiovascular disease risk, Martinez-Gonzales said.

Because few studies have examined television screen time and mortality risk independent of other behaviors that involve sitting for long periods, the researchers studied different sedentary behaviors and all-cause mortality in around 13,000 healthy Spanish university graduates (mean age 37) followed for a median of 8.2 years.

All participants completed a baseline questionnaire designed to assess total daily television viewing, computer use and driving time. Each behavior was quantified in 12 categories (ranging from never to more than 9 hours a day) and the exposures were measured separately for weekdays and weekends.

Time spent during weekdays was multiplied by 5 and the time spent during weekends by 2, and results were summed and divided by 7 to calculate the participants' total time per day. The validation study of the questionnaire found that the Spearman correlation coefficient between the energy expenditure estimated through the ratio sedentary lifestyle: physical activity in the questionnaire and that obtained by an objective method (triaxial accelerometer) was -0.578 (95% CI -0.754-minus 0.325).

Questionnaires also assessed medical history, lifestyle, sociodemographic factors and anthropometric measurements. Total physical activity and dietary habits were also assessed through questionnaires completed at study entry. Respondents who reported having cancer, diabetes or cardiovascular disease (n=1206) were excluded from the original study cohort.

No Association Seen for Computer Use or Drive Time

During the follow-up, 97 deaths were registered among the cohort, which was lower than the expected number of deaths (n=128) in a sample of the general Spanish population with the same size, sex, and age distribution, the researchers wrote.

Poisson regression models were used to examine the association between each sedentary behavior and total mortality. All-cause mortality IRRs per 2 hours per day were 1.40 (95% CI 1.06-01.84) for television viewing, 0.96 (95% CI 0.79-1.18) for computer use, and 1.14 (95% CI 0.90-1.44) for driving, after adjustment for age, sex, smoking status, total energy intake, Mediterranean diet adherence, body mass index, and physical activity.

When total sedentary behavior was analyzed as a continuous variable, the IRR per each additional 2 hours per day of exposure was 1.17 (95% CI 1.03-1.33).

The majority of the deaths during follow-up were due to cancer (n=46), followed by noncancer/noncardiovascular causes (n=32) and cardiovascular disease (n=19).

The IRRs for each additional 2 hours each day of television viewing were 1.44 (95% CI 0.87-2.41) for cardiovascular mortality, 1.21 (95% CI 0.73-2.00) for cancer mortality and 1.55 (95% CI 0.96-2.53) for noncardiovascular/noncancer mortality, after adjusting for age, sex, smoking, total energy intake, Mediterranean diet adherence, BMI, computer use, and time spent driving.

The researchers repeated the analyses after excluding all deaths occurring in the first 3 years of follow up (n=35) to check for reverse causality. When this was done (using <1 a="" across="" all-cause="" as="" categories="" category="" day="" for="" hour="" irrs="" mortality="" multivariable-adjusted="" of="" reference="" span="" television="" the="" viewing="" were:="">

  • 1.16 (95% CI 0.56-2.39) for 1 to 2 hours a day
  • 1.75 (95% CI 0.91-3.35) for 2 to 3 hours a day
  • 2.38 (95% CI 1.19-4.74) for >3 hours a day

The P value for linear trend was 0.006.

Excess TV Time Linked to Social Isolation

"Because television viewing is likely to be associated with snacking and consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, a possible explanation for the association that we found could be a difference in energy intake during television viewing," the researchers wrote.

In an effort to control for this, the researchers repeated their sensitivity analyses to further adjust for snacking and consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages.

Following this adjustment -- again with <1 --="" all-cause="" as="" category="" day="" for="" hour="" irrs="" mortality="" per="" reference="" span="" television="" the="" viewing="" were:="">

  • 1.09 (95% CI 0.61-1.95) for 1 to 2 hours a day
  • 1.45 (95% CI 0.84-2.50) for 2 to 3 hours a day
  • 2.19 (95% CI 1.23-3.91) for >3 hours a day

The P value for linear trend was again 0.006.

More likely explanations for the twofold increase in death risk among participants who watched more than 3 hours of television a day are the fact that television watching tends to be an extremely passive activity, and that people who spend many hours in front of a television each day are often socially isolated.

"Lack of social support is a known risk factor for higher mortality," Martinez-Gonzales said."And when people spend so many hours watching television they are not doing other things that may benefit their health."

He noted that the failure to show an association between total computer or driving time and mortality may be due to differential effects of these activities on cardiometabolic risk factors.

Several other studies have suggested that television viewing time is more directly associated with poor health outcomes, including obesity and type 2 diabetes, than other activities that involve prolonged sitting.

The findings of Martinez-Gonzales and colleagues are similar to those reported in a recent meta-analysis of three prospective studies, which showed a pooled relative risk for all-cause mortality of 1.13 (95% CI 1.07-1.18) for every 2 additional hours a day of television viewing.

Another meta-analysis, which included the studies from the three-study analysis, observed a pooled hazard ratio for all-cause mortality of 1.49 (95% CI 1.14-2.03) for the highest versus lowest television exposure.

Potential study limitations included the fact that the information in the questionnaires was self-reported, and the small number of deaths among the study cohort.

The researchers added that more research is needed to better understand the impact of computer use and driving on mortality and to determine the biological mechanisms behind the observed association between increased TV time and death.

The study was funded by the Spanish Government, the Navarra Regional Government, and the University of Navarra.

The researchers disclosed no relevant relationships with industry.

Reviewed by Zalman S. Agus, MD; Emeritus Professor, Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and Dorothy Caputo, MA, BSN, RN, Nurse Planner

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