A recent study conducted by Timothy Wilson, Ph.D., of the University of Virginia, looked at our ability to occupy ourselves with our own thoughts as opposed to the plethora of modern technological options we tend to entertain ourselves with. Dr. Wilson asked participants to put away distractions and focus instead on their own thoughts for a defined period of time (6-15 minutes).  Results demonstrated that participants found the task of focusing on their thoughts notably less enjoyable than other activities. An unforeseen finding in one of Wilson’s experiments was that when given the option, one quarter of women and two thirds of men participants chose to give themselves an electric shock rather than just focusing on their thoughts.

Wilson attributes his results to the “scanner hypothesis,” which posits it is unnatural for mammals to focus internally for too long due to having evolved to monitor their external environments for dangers and opportunities.

Whether natural or unnatural, at times we seek distraction simply to avoid boredom, while at other times it may be to avoid thoughts that are particularly uncomfortable or troubling. Although I can’t say that I would resort to an electric shock, I – like most people – can certainly relate to the phenomenon of being surprisingly occupied by the most mundane of external distractions due to boredom or avoidance. Here are some examples of TV characters engaging in distractions of their own:


In the Friends episode, “The One Where Ross Moves In,” we see Joey struggling to stay quiet for Ross.


In the Seinfeld episode, “The Barber,” George is stuck in the office at a new job with the infamous Penske file.  Since he has no idea what to do with it, he essentially waits out the clock in his office, entertaining himself with what’s at hand until it’s time to go home.

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When Parks and Recreation’s Tom Haverford is banned from using any technology with screens for 1 week in the episode “Sex Education,” he resorts to some creative ways to fill the distraction void.


In the premiere episode of season 2 of Orange is the New Black, we see how Piper has been keeping herself occupied while in solitary confinement (click picture for link to video).


And my personal favorite, here we see what happens when Jesse Pinkman gets bored in the lab in the Breaking Bad episode, “I see you.”

title image source: ew.com