The Shocking Wandering Mind Study

…Is scientific media circle-jerking at its best.  

This recent study to come out demonstrating that humans placed in very specific conditions did, in some cases, “prefer” to receive a negative stimulus than simply let their minds wander for fifteen minutes, has erupted in media speculation and gross misinterpretations of results the likes of which I feel we haven’t seen in a while.  

Let’s start off with a couple of things: I’m not trying to tear down the study.  I have read the original publication in Science and while I do think that it suffers from many of the difficulties other psychology studies struggle with, none of them are extreme enough in my opinion to invalidate any results.

Some things about the study are woefully unrepresented in the media.  Probably because it makes it harder to create splashy headlines that will work our feeble little minds into frothy, anti-technology rages.  Let’s look at a couple of them now.

  1. This “study” was actually 11 separate studies, each attempting to control for something different.  These include, but are not limited to negative AND positive stimuli as alternatives to quiet thinking, study population (college students vs. other community members but there were a few deficiencies in how this was conducted in my opinion), and the type of mental wandering occurring (completely free-form vs. “prompted fantasy” where the subjects are given something to think about in their six to fifteen minutes).
  2. The researchers actually point out some deficiencies in their studies in the publication such as with asking participants to conduct this study at home and how there is no randomization occurring and urge caution with interpreting the results.  I have yet to see this mentioned a single time in any of the news sources who have reported on this.
  3. The mean number of shocks subjects “chose” to receive was 1.46 for men and 1.00 for women.  While all of these subjects had experienced the shock previously this does not suggest that subjects were repeatedly shocking themselves throughout the course of the study as many news sources imply through exclusion of details.  I would argue this suggests curiosity and not a desperate need for any stimulus, even negative, as a distraction from our thoughts. NPR also claims that the negative stimulus was a “severe” shock from a 9 volt battery.  The word “severe” appears nowhere in the original source and odds are IRB approval would not have been granted if it were that severe.

Now there are a couple of things that stand out to me as perhaps mediocre experiment design that I have yet to see discussed anywhere:

  1. The non-college student populations (adults ages 18-77, median 48.0…  no mention of the mean which could be significantly lower or higher) were only tested at home (non-randomized locations) and were never tested in a lab setting.  This doesn’t invalidate any results, but it limits any interpretations that can be made about this group since there is no adequate control.
  2. All of the studies that were conducted at home were conducted through a “link to a Web program.”  This is after the subjects had been asked to remove all distractions and put away all electronics.  Hmmm…  it’s difficult to clink a link without access to the internet at the tip of your fingers.  I would liken this to telling someone they can’t have ice cream and then the only way I could start the study would be be sticking my finger in some and not being allowed to lick it off.
  3. The bulk of the study was conducted on college students, as many many many psychology studies are.  While there’s nothing inherently wrong with this, it limits any and all extrapolation to other populations that can or should be done.  Science journalists seem to have minimal or no concept of sampling theory (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Statistical_sampling).  The “adult” volunteers from the community were found at a farmers market and local church (which would both tend to attract specific sub-populations of people) in Charlottesville, VA.  Charlottesville is a small, university town quite DISsimilar to many, many other small towns and large cities in the nation.  (http://www.charlottesville.org/Index.aspx?page=576).  And, need I remind everyone, this other population was not adequately controlled for OR randomized.

Now, all of those things aside, I think this is as good and thorough as any other psychology study I’ve seen or participated in (and as a student, it’s typically a great way to earn a little bit of extra cash!).  My issue is not with the researchers, it’s with every interpretation of the results I’ve seen so far.  

All organisms evolved through stimulus response mechanisms.  Without stimuli, or awareness of stimuli and consequently response, nothing happens.  The brain is just a big blob of meat (ok, a highly-organized big blob of meat) that decodes stimuli, interprets them, and works to develop patterns and suitable responses to said patterns.  That’s all.  The researchers in this paper acknowledge that the ability to let ones mind wander, appears to be unique to humans, although I don’t know how they seem to know that my cats’ minds don’t wander…  

Everyone in the media is all shocked and awed that humans seem to prefer stimulus over default-mode processing (a.k.a. daydreaming), when humans didn’t develop to day-dream.  If an early human spent too much time daydreaming and not enough time responding to stimuli, they probably got eaten by something or otherwise weren’t as well adjusted to survival in the wild.  That’s an over simplification of evolutionary-biology, but I think it’s pokes at my underlying point: it’s not that surprising if you give it ten seconds of thought that our brains would evolutionarily preferentially default to stimulus response mechanisms rather than default-mode processing.  These last few thousands of years are the first time in known history that we’re safe enough in our day to day lives that we can daydream and space out and not DIE for lack of collecting food and water or being attacked by a wild animal or your crazy neighbor Jim's broadsword.   

I’ve also seem many writers attribute this need for stimulus to technology:

“[The study] represents a novel approach to the study of human distractibility, in which the "wandering mind" is often itself the distraction: a symptom of our multitasking, digitized culture that interrupts our pleasure reading, test-taking and work lives.”

 (http://www.npr.org/blogs/alltechconsidered/2014/07/03/328137640/surrounded-by-digital-distractions-we-cant-even-stop-to-think)

but that’s an unfounded claim since the researchers made no attempt to control for technology use among the participants.  Confused?  Here’s how they would be able to make that claim:  If the same study had been conducted 50 years ago, before the ubiquity of technological distractions, and found negative or differing results.  Only then could anyone make the claim that these distractions are “a symptom of our multitasking, digitized culture.” 

I won’t speculate as to what a study fifty years ago into the same thing might have looked like, but I will call attention to waiting rooms in doctor’s offices.  How long have we been putting magazines and books in those waiting rooms?  Did anyone cry foul and let slip the dogs war against magazines and books because we couldn’t just sit still in a waiting room and stare at the wall? No.  How long have people been reading in the bathroom?  Same thing.  While these are in no way scientific, they are perhaps anecdotal evidence that for a long long long time humans have preferred stimulation over daydreaming.  There’s nothing so terrifyingly new here.  Sorry.

It’s just that we’re now interacting with this whole new range of devices and people are freaked out by it.  It really disappoints me when I see this type of article that just jumps on the bandwagon of tech-bashing without really giving a full depiction of the scope of the study (which is almost ALWAYS more narrow than journalists would have you believe).  In the context of this study, a pencil and paper, a book, a nice picture, was considered a “stimulus,” but no one reports on that.  For instance, here’s a disappointing headline from Slashdot:

“Study: People Would Rather Be Shocked Than Be Alone With Their Thoughts”

(http://science-beta.slashdot.org/story/14/07/04/0247226/study-people-would-rather-be-shocked-than-be-alone-with-their-thoughts)

BUT THAT’S NOT WHAT THE STUDY WAS ABOUT AT ALL.

Is it so much to ask that we have an intelligent discussion about this stuff instead of just always jumping on the bandwagon of giving tech-phobic media consumers exactly what they want to read? (Or in the case of Slashdot giving the tech-centric community an underserved sense of pride at how much they love to be alone).  This is actually an interesting study in its own right that’s been twisted to meet consumer demand and assign the blame for technology uses to psychology and not just a sign of the times.

There was actually one participant who shocked himself 190 times in the span of the session (again between 6 and 15 minutes) and I can’t help but think that he’s going to be the one to save us all:

<3,

John