Why Is It So Hard to Be Alone With Our Thoughts? (NSQ Ep. 9)

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Also: how do you avoid screwing up your kids?

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Relevant References & Research

Question #1: How comfortable are you being alone with your thoughts for an extended period of time?

  • When discussing reverie, Angela mentions an experiment by Tim Wilson, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia. His experiment gathered undergraduates in a room with the choice of either sitting alone with their thoughts or shocking themselves. 67 percent of male participants and 25 percent of female participants were so bored that they chose electrocution.
  • Angela also recommends watching the “Phones Down: 20 Minute Challenge” from Jubilee Media. Teenagers sit in an empty room with their phones in front of them, and are told not to touch them.
  • Angela and Stephen talk about “the default-mode network,” the part of the brain that displays activity when you’re “not doing anything.” Neuroscientists identified this area through fMRI experiments — a technology still in its infancy.
  • Angela mentions Matt Killingsworth and Dan Gilbert’s research on the wandering mind. In a study, they messaged 2,250 adults to identify their activity and mood at different times of the day, and found that people who were mind-wandering were less happy than others. You can read the full paper, “A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind.”
  • Stephen refers to a memory experiment by psychologist Anders Ericsson, in which individuals were trained to remember a long series of digits, demonstrating that humans have a strong fact-retention ability. The experiment is described in depth in his book, Peak. Stephen and Angela talked extensively about Ericsson and his work in No Stupid Questions Ep. 8, “Wouldn’t It Be Better to Hear Your Eulogy Before You’re Dead?
  • Angela talks about research from psychologist Walter Mischel on self-control and stimulus-control, especially in children. You can read more into his original study here. He was also a mentor to Maria Konnikova, author of The Biggest Bluff, who was featured in the Freakonomics Radio episode “How to Make Your Own Luck.”
  • Angela mentions attending a mindfulness workshop led by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Kabat-Zinn has a Ph.D in biology and is a professor of medicine at University of Massachusetts Medical School. He is also a writer and teaches meditation with the intention of achieving mainstream recognition of mindfulness in society and medicine.
  • Angela mentions the work of Art Kramer, who determined that cardiovascular exercise can have benefits on executive function. Kramer is a psychologist at Northeastern University, and you can read more about his research here.
  • Angela talks about the peripatetics, or “the walking philosophers.” This term stems from the fourth century B.C.E. when a school founded by Aristotle was built within walking distance of the Athens walls.

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Question #2: Do parents have any significant influence over their children once they reach adolescence?

  • Stephen and his Freakonomics co-author Steven Levitt wrote about “culture cramming” in the chapter of their book “What Makes a Perfect Parent?” They analyzed data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Early Childhood Longitudinal Study and found culture cramming activities (like making your child listen to Mozart) do not have a significant effect on early childhood test scores.
  • Stephen talks about Carl Pickhardt, a psychologist and author of Surviving Your Child’s Adolescence. Picikhardt concludes that parents “get kicked off the pedestal” between the ages of 9 and 13. You can read his summary of this research here.
  • Angela mentions a paper from Columbia University neuroscientist Nim Tottenham on parental ability to “buffer” fear and stress responses in children. You can read more about her research here.
  • Stephen quotes the poem This Be the Verse by Philip Larkin. Larkin was an English poet who published much of his work in the 1960s and won numerous awards in the 1970s. He was also a professor at the University of Hull in England.
  • Stephen and Angela mention psychologist Walter Mischel’s research on “person effects” vs “situation effects.” In his book, Personality and Assessment, he claims that situations are more influential on human behavior than individual personality.