In my book Digital Minimalism, I emphasized the danger of a newly-emerged condition that I called “solitude deprivation.” As I wrote, the introduction of the smartphone caused our relationship with distraction to mutate into something new:
“At the slightest hint of boredom, you can now surreptitiously glance at any number of apps or mobile-adapted websites that have been optimized to provide you an immediate and satisfying dose of input from other minds. It’s now possible to completely banish solitude from your life.”
I went on to argue that this condition was worrisome. Us humans evolved to experience significant amounts of time alone with our own thoughts. Remove this solitude from our lives and we’re not only bound to get twitchy and anxious, but we miss out on much of the subtle but deep value generated by a wandering mind.
A new paper, published by researchers at the University of Tübingen, and appearing in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, provides some support for these claims. “Psychologists who studied a group of more than 250 people encouraged to engage in directionless contemplation or free-floating thinking,” summarizes The Guardian, “said that the activity was far more satisfying than the participants had anticipated.”
Furthermore, the paper reports benefits to losing yourself in thought, finding that this state can “aid problem solving, increase creativity, enhance the imagination and contribute to a sense of self-worth.”
Kou Murayama, the lead author of the study, noted that the subjects underestimated the value of contemplation, and in many cases worried that this activity would be a negative experience. They often preferred the easy distraction provided by technology such as smartphones. “This could explain why people prefer to keep busy rather than to enjoy a moment of reflection or letting their imagination run away with itself in their everyday lives,” he concluded.
These results do a good job of summarizing our current troubled relationship with our own minds. We fear solitude, but it’s exactly this time alone with our own thoughts that we need to make sense of our experiences and grow as humans. TikTok is fun, but grappling with the core questions of our existence is fundamental.
This week on Deep Questions: In episode 208 of my podcast, posted earlier today, I tackle my problem with task lists, the liminal space between deep and shallow work, and the anxiety of not making enough progress on your goals. You can watch the full episode on YouTube or subscribe wherever you consume podcasts.