Put down the smartphone: Study finds people underestimate how fun thinking actually is

‘Our research suggests that individuals have difficulty appreciating just how engaging thinking can be.’

WASHINGTON — Digital technology is everywhere these days, and many studies warn of the dangers that come with sitting mindlessly in front of a screen all day. Now, a new study finds letting your brain out for some “fresh air” is a lot more fun than people give it credit for.

Researchers from the United Kingdom, Germany, and Japan found that people underestimate the enjoyment they get from just letting their mind wander without having a digital device or some other form of distraction around. In a series of experiments with over 250 volunteers, the team found that people consistently underrated how much enjoyment they got from simply sitting in the company of their own thoughts for up to 20 minutes, thinking about whatever they wanted to.

“Humans have a striking ability to immerse themselves in their own thinking,” says Kyoto University’s Aya Hatano, PhD, the lead study author, in a media release. “Our research suggests that individuals have difficulty appreciating just how engaging thinking can be. That could explain why people prefer keeping themselves busy with devices and other distractions, rather than taking a moment for reflection and imagination in daily life.”

People need less stimulation than they think

In one experiment, study authors asked participants to predict how much they would enjoy sitting alone, thinking to themselves for 20 minutes. During the actual exercise, the volunteers could not use a smartphone, read, or even walk around.

Results show that each person enjoyed letting their mind wander much more than they thought they would. This held true when the researchers changed the experiment several times, including placing the participants in an empty conference room, in a dark tent, having them sit for just three minutes, and asking them how much they were enjoying themselves halfway through the 20-minute session.

Every time, the group ended up saying that just sitting and using their brain to think freely was much more fun than they predicted.

Missing out on a chance to think can be bad for well-being

In a different experiment, the team compared how much people enjoyed thinking to checking out the news online. Again, the volunteers significantly underrated how much they would enjoy freely using their brains in comparison to browsing the internet. After the experiment, participants reported that they enjoyed both activities about the same amount.

Researchers say their findings are especially important when you consider how much “information overload” takes place on a daily basis.

“It’s now extremely easy to ‘kill time.’ On the bus on your way to work, you can check your phone rather than immerse yourself in your internal free-floating thinking, because you predict thinking will be boring,” says study co-author Kou Murayama, PhD, from the University of Tübingen. “However, if that prediction is inaccurate, you are missing an opportunity to positively engage yourself without relying on such stimulation.”

Previous studies find that allowing the mind to wander can help people solve problems, enhance their creativity, and even help them find meaning in their life.

“By actively avoiding thinking activities, people may miss these important benefits,” Murayama adds.

Overall, study authors note that thinking is still not something people rank as a particularly enjoyable task. On a seven-point scale of enjoyment, the participants only gave the thought exercise a three or a four. Moving forward, the team says they’ll look at what kinds of thinking exercises are the most enjoyable and motivating for people.

“Not all thinking is intrinsically rewarding, and in fact some people are prone to vicious cycles of negative thinking,” Murayama concludes.

The research is published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

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