A shocking discovery about thinking?
You’ve probably already seen the story. Participants in an experiment were asked to sit and think. The only distraction available was the possibility of giving themselves a mild electric shock. One third of women and two thirds of men shocked themselves to pass the time. One man shocked himself 190 times.The study has widely been reported as finding that students prefer shocks to thinking. That’s not accurate. It wasn’t students who apparently found the experience of having to sit and think aversive. It was everyone (moreover, finding it aversive was unrelated to internet or smartphone use: it’s not because we have short attention spans in the age of twitter that we find it hard). This is ironic, because a common limitation of psychological studies is that they use an all student cohort. When psychologists conduct an experiment involving only students, the media commonly overlooks this limitation. One time the psychologists take care to use a broader sample, and the media reports that the finding is about students.
But I’m more concerned about a bigger limitation, not of the reporting but of the study itself. The experiment just isn’t evidence that people find thinking aversive. Rather, they find a certain caricature of thinking aversive. It’s a caricature that is widely shared (how many times have you seen that Rodin sculpture used as a representation for thinking?) but it’s false. Thinking, genuine thinking, is not something done in an armchair. It is an active processes, involving movement and props, not something that takes place only in the head. Thinking is an activity of an embodied agent, and involves the use of the body.
We know, for instance, that gesture actively contributes to problem solving. Making people sit and think prevents or at least drastically curtails the gestures that are partially constitutive of thinking (sitting with your hands on a keyboard is a different matter; I’ll return to that in a moment). Lots of people find walking conducive to thinking. And, most of all, thinking is a dialogical activity. We think with others, or in opposition to them. Philosophers, who tend to write single-authored papers, nevertheless produce those papers through cycles of discussion with others, formal and informal.
What about sitting and thinking at a keyboard? That combines the power of gestures with the power of external representations. Gestures have contents, and those contents contribute to thinking. Typing also might be understood as having gestural content: the content of the words typed. In producing these contents we are thinking. Further, seeing our thoughts exernalized allows us to manipulate them in ways we can’t when they’re in our heads. Working memory limitations ensure that we can’t keep many ideas active in our heads at once. But on paper, or on a computer screen, we can manipulate paragraphs or larger chunks that represent ideas in ways we can’t in our heads.
We do all this time, so fluidly and unthinkingly we often fail to recognize the extent to which thinking is an activity. Richard Feynman was one brilliant thinker who did recognize this. When someone claimed that some notes represent “the record” of his work, Feynman objected that the paper was the doing of the work. “It’s not a record, not really, it’s working. You have to work on paper and this is the paper. OK?”
It’s not all that surprising that people prefer mild shocks to doing nothing at all. Doing nothing is boring. Thinking, on the other hand, is (for some people, at least) very interesting and rewarding. But thinking is something we do with other people, whether face to face or through the mediation of paper and computers, with tools, and with our bodies. We do little of it just sitting.