Daydreaming, mind-wandering, and boredom are topics which have recently received an increasing amount of research in the scientific community. These terms refer to “empty time”, an interval of lived time that is not filled with distracting activities or explicit tasks, and during which individuals experience a variety of affective states, often described as boredom. Waiting situations, are common features of modern human life, for example, at airports and train stations or in traffic jams, or when customers wait for certain services. They have nonmonetary costs and are usually perceived negatively [1
]. We may feel distressed without distraction from modern media (e.g., smart phones) because the mind becomes disengaged. In such situations, individuals report a subjective slowing down of time as an intrinsic feature of the overall feeling of boredom [3
What does really happen when we have to wait without a distraction? A recent series of studies by Wilson and colleagues [5
] published in the journal Science
, has led to a conceptual debate. In 11 studies with a sample size of approximately 900 participants (mostly students), Wilson et al. focused primarily on how subjects enjoyed and judged a period of time (6–15 min) when left alone in a room with nothing but their own thoughts. We were most interested in studies 1 to 10 and outline them here in detail. In studies 1 to 6, participants first had to hand in all their possibly distracting belongings (cell phone, writing implements, etc.) and were then asked to spend a period of time occupying themselves with their own thoughts. The only other rules were that they should stay seated and awake. Results showed that subjects felt it was difficult to concentrate (57.5% at or above the midpoint of the scale), their minds wandered (89.0%), and half of the subjects reported average or below-average enjoyment of the experience (49.3%). In study 7, participants were allowed to perform the study at home via web-based options. This time, the average judged enjoyment was even lower, and subjects found it more difficult to concentrate at home than under laboratory conditions. In study 8, participants were randomly assigned to conditions and therefore either engaged themselves with their own thoughts or performed a diverting activity, such as reading an enjoyable book, listening to music, or spending time surfing the Web. According to Wilson et al., subjects rated the external activities as far more enjoyable than “just thinking”. It was also easier to concentrate, and there was less mind-wandering. Whereas studies 1 to 8 included students as participants, study 9 consisted of community participants. Similar to study 7, these community participants performed the study online at home. The results correlated with those of study 7, indicating that the subjects’ ages, education levels, incomes, etc. did not influence enjoyment of the thinking period. Study 10 was held in the laboratory, and participants were asked to engage themselves with their thoughts. This time, however, subjects could receive negative stimulation (an electric shock) during the thinking time if they so desired. Many participants preferred negative stimulation to no stimulation. Of the male participants, 67% (12 of 18) administered themselves more than one electric shock during the period of “just thinking”. On the contrary, only 6 out of 24 (25%) female subjects did so. Wilson et al. concluded, “[b]ut what is striking is that simply being alone with their own thoughts for 15 min was apparently so aversive that it drove many participants to self-administer an electric shock that they had earlier said they would pay to avoid” [5
] (p. 76).
Recently, researchers [6
] analyzed 21 experimental study reports that had originally been published between 2010 and 2015. The Wilson et al. studies were part of this large-scale replication project. Wilson et al. were among the 12 replications that showed minor deviations from the pre-registered replication protocols and a significant effect compared to the one in the original studies. Buttrick et al. [7
] conducted a direct replication of Wilson et al.’s study 8 with participants from 12 sites in 11 countries. The sample in the original study by Wilson et al. consisted of American participants only. Buttrick and colleagues summarized that the average effect size of the replication was quite large, though smaller than in the original study. The overall cross-cultural outcomes of the replication showed that participants preferred to engage in everyday activities (reading or watching a video) rather than turn one’s attention inward and to think for pleasure.
Fox and colleagues [8
] critically reviewed Wilson et al.’s findings. After reviewing the data, they found that most of the participants (57%) did not administer electric shocks to themselves, and only 17% did so more than twice, i.e., 83% did not shock themselves at all or they did it only once, probably out of curiosity. More importantly, there was little support for the notion that participants found the period of “just thinking” to be aversive or unpleasant. On average, subjects even rated the experience of engaging themselves with their thoughts to be somewhat enjoyable. This seems to be a classic case of how results can be interpreted differently, that is, whether the glass is half full or half empty. In summarizing the results, one could say that the response curve is normally distributed with average empirical values close to the means of the scales. Fox and colleagues suggested that the main outcome of Wilson et al.’s investigation lie in its insights regarding “mind-wandering”. They concluded, “[e]ven when it is less than enjoyable or entertaining, spending time with our own unstructured thoughts may increase our overall sense of well-being and life satisfaction” [8
] (p. 4).
Jokic, Zakay, and Wittmann [9
] added further insights to the topic of how people cope with being exposed to an empty time interval. In their study, 84 participants were asked to spend time alone in an empty room waiting until one of the scientists conducting the study arrived. The period of time lasted 7:30 min. Similar to Wilson et al.’s studies, the participants had to hand in their belongings (cell phone, wrist-watches, etc.). Afterwards, the subjects were requested to fill out scales assessing their states of consciousness during the empty waiting time. The findings indicated that those subjects with higher scores in relaxation and positive feelings judged that time passed faster, and they estimated the period of time to be shorter than it actually was. Conversely, when individuals felt more irritated while waiting, they over-estimated the time duration. Importantly, in this study, individual differences in impulsiveness, which accounted for the variations in the responses were controlled for. Individuals who are more impulsive and present oriented are less relaxed while waiting, and overestimate the waiting time. This relationship between personality traits (time orientation) and time perception was also found in a study where participants had to wait for five minutes in a resting-state and were measured with a physiological recording. Afterwards they were requested to judge the duration of the resting period [10
]. More impulsively present-oriented individuals overestimated the time duration.
An affective reaction to an “empty period of time” or silence was further revealed through research by Pfeifer, Sarikaya, and Wittmann [11
], who found that 6:30 min of silence preceded by a session of Depth Relaxation Music Therapy (DRMT)/Hypno Music Therapy (HMT) lasting 16 min showed significant effects in increasing relaxation, and decreasing future orientation, the sense of space, and the sense of time in participants (n = 60). These findings support the idea that a period of silence during which participants occupy themselves with their own thoughts can increase relaxation and be enjoyable rather than unpleasant or aversive if conducted in a certain way, i.e., in the context of depth relaxation induction.
This is what health insurance companies also recognize and emphasize. Surholt [12
] maintains that a silent state and just doing nothing can create a period of relaxation. If the circumstances are adequate, the level of stress and blood pressure can even decrease. The problem is that nowadays, most people have little experience of silence and quietness. This concurs with Wilson et al.’s study.
A simple 90 min walk in a natural setting without any distractions also seems to have relaxing effects on the brain. Bratman and colleagues [13
] proved that a 90 min walk in nature decreases rumination and neural activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex (sgPFC), whereas a walk of the same duration in an urban setting does not.
The idea of silence, Depth Relaxation Music Therapy (DRMT)/Hypno Music Therapy (HMT), and walking in nature is that spending time with one’s own thoughts can increase relaxation and enjoyment and have specific health-fostering effects. However, in other contexts, the effects may be different as Killingsworth and Gilbert [14
] concluded that “a human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind” (p. 932). They found correlations between negative moods, mind-wandering, and unhappiness.
Research regarding silence, or doing nothing but engaging oneself with one’s own thoughts could add further knowledge to this field. The present study is strongly focused on such an “empty” or “silent” period of time “just thinking” and explores how participants experienced and judged a silent time lasting 6:30 min.
This was a variation of the principle study designed by Wilson et al. [5
], where people were asked to “think” while waiting. We added state inventories of the conscious dimensions of time, space, and self, which have been shown to be sensitive in a real waiting situation [9
]. Time is an essential experience that, surprisingly, was not assessed in the study by Wilson et al. [5
]. We added trait questionnaires that were sensitive for differences in the empty waiting situation to assess individual differences in impulsivity and time orientation during the “thinking” situation [9
We tested whether there were significant differences in relaxation (VAS), as well as emotional valence and emotional arousal (SAM) after as compared to before the silent “thinking” experience. The question was how the 6:30 min period of silence would influence these affective states. Participants were significantly (t = −7.3, p < 0.0001) more relaxed after (76.5) vs. before (57.3) the period of silent time. They also felt significantly better after (1.12) (SAM valence range: −2 to 2; t = −3.0, p = 0.004) than before (0.92) the period of silence, and they were significantly less aroused (SAM arousal range: 0 to 4; t = 7.3, p < 0.001) after (1.86) as compared to before (2.6). The period of silence was experienced as relaxing and improved the participants’ mood.
The following presents a descriptive evaluation of the subjective measures of the states of consciousness during 6:30 min of silence (Table 2
). The intensity of the sense of self was 4.97average, above the mean of the item range (3.5; item range: 0–6); and the intensity of the sense of space averaged 3.14, just below the mean of the item range. The intensity of the sense of time, with an average value of 32.06 was definitely below the mean (50, item range 0–100). The felt passage of time, with a value of 77.05 was in the upper half of the item range. Regarding the three time orientations, the feeling of presence (53.06) was more dominant than past (19.61) or future orientation (27.33). The duration of silence was judged relatively accurately at 7.09 min with small deviation (S.D. 2.92), but had an overall range between 3 and 20 min. The feeling of boredom was very low with an average value of 10.39 and a maximum value of 61. On average, individuals confined to the period of silence felt the self quite intensively; they perceived the surrounding space with an average intensity; generally, time was not felt very intensively; the subjective speed of the passage of time was fast; subjects were on average quite in the present moment; the duration was judged accurately; and boredom was hardly felt.
No inter-correlations between state variables assessed after the thinking period were found (p < 0.01). We attribute this to the ceiling effects. When relating individual differences in impulsivity and the five time orientations with differences in experiencing the period of silence, hardly any significant correlations (p < 0.01) were found. Individuals who had higher values in past positive orientation were less in the present (r = −0.347, p = 0.005) and more future oriented (r = 0.321, p = 0.01).
In contrast to the interpretation of the study by Wilson and colleagues [5
], who claimed that silent time induced an affectively negative experience for a large number of their participants, we found no such overall reaction. Note that the interpretation by Fox and colleagues [8
] of Wilson et al.’s data is that participants overall did not show negative reactions, but that the distribution of responses was quite balanced. We also demonstrated that 6:30 min of silent, empty time, where individuals could only “think”, led to a significant increase in relaxation and a positive mood. Focusing on the reports from the participants on their consciousness of time, on average they did not focus very much on time, and they subjectively felt that the time passed quickly. These are typical signs of relaxation and flow [11
]. Complementing these findings, the experience of boredom on average was very low, and the sense of self was comparably high. Often such a heightened sense of self is a sign of boredom and irritation combined with the feeling of a slow passage of time [15
]. Here, we found that the instruction to wait and think leads to more self-awareness, but in an emotionally positive way.
Overall, our sample of students enjoyed their silent waiting time when instructed just to think. According to Fox et al. [8
], the Wilson et al. [5
] students showed normally distributed reactions to the scales with the empirical average lying close to the mean score of the scales. Our student sample, however, showed a skew in the direction of very positive reactions to the situation of thinking alone. This ceiling effect of people feeling very relaxed probably explains why we did not find associations with personality traits, such as impulsivity or time orientation, as found in studies with a real waiting time without the instruction to “just think” [9
]. Interestingly, thinking as an enjoyable activity has recently been addressed in publications under the headline of “thinking for pleasure”. Studies have shown that “thinking for pleasure” does not come easily, it may even be cognitively demanding, but can be enjoyable if conducted under the right conditions with simple cognitive aids that make it easier and more enjoyable for study participants [22
]. In one of these studies [23
], participants reported that the more they aimed to have pleasant thoughts, the more enjoyment the actually experienced. Motivation may also be an important factor. Alahmadi et al. [24
] found that instructions helped participants if they were instructed or given the goal to entertain themselves with their thoughts and to enjoy such times of thinking. Motivation was the crucial catalyst for making thinking enjoyable in this case. However, in our study, participants were not given any specific goals, tasks or instructions, nor was there any other motivational support. We only asked the participants to spend a period of silent time, that was of unknown duration to them, to occupy themselves with their own thoughts alone in a room. This led to a significant decrease in arousal, a significant increase in relaxation, a positive mood and enjoyment in the study participants. Similarly, a study conducted by Nguyen et al. [25
] pointed towards the effectiveness of solitude on arousal and self-regulation. A 15 min period of solitude, of being alone, sitting on a comfortable chair, in silence, helped participants to become quiet, to calm down and to regulate their affective states. The outcomes of our study can be discussed in the light of Nguyen et al.’s findings, although we relied on a silent period of time lasting 6:30 min instead of 15 min.
What makes our findings striking is that we did not tell the subjects beforehand how long the thinking interval would last. This creates a situation of temporal uncertainty, which is typically experienced as irritating [26
]. If you know that a train will be delayed by 10 min, this information gives certainty, which is experienced as positive. If you do not know when the train will come, you feel more irritated. In the study by Wilson et al. [5
] (Supplementary Materials there in), subjects were informed precisely or approximately about the duration of waiting (10–15 min). Nevertheless, those individuals on average felt more irritated by the thinking situation than our students did.
What might account for the differences between the Wilson et al. study [5
] and our investigation? Two differences regarding the student sample can be considered. One reason could lie in the specific study subjects that the students in our study pursued at the university. A potential cultural difference might also be at work here. (1) The students in our sample studied “Education”, “Inclusive Education”, “Social Work/Social Education”, or other social and health-related BA/MA programs. It can be argued that a certain type of students chooses this type of study program. Additionally, once enrolled in the study program of the university, the curriculum emphasizes emotional self-awareness and includes lectures and seminars covering this area. Typically, these particular study programs have a majority of women enrolled and this is reflected in our sample. Further studies could assess whether women are more comfortable with waiting situations. In studies 1 to 6 in the Wilson et al. [5
] article, there were 211 female, 162 male, and 40 unspecified subjects (see Supplementary Materials there in), which is more balanced than in our study sample (51 women and 14 men). (2) A second aspect one has to consider is the influence of intercultural differences, which has a strong impact on the way people manage empty time [27
]. For example, it has been shown that American subjects were less likely to delay gratification in delay-discounting tasks than Japanese subjects [28
]. Delay-discounting tasks assess individuals’ abilities to imagine living through a waiting time before receiving a reward. Japanese subjects were more self-controlled and considered themselves more capable of waiting for the delayed reward. Although speculative in our context, it is possible that students from the U.S.A. feel worse during an empty time interval than German students. This is a topic for further investigation, especially since current cross-cultural investigations, conducted in 11 countries, indicate that across cultures “thinking for pleasure” is judged as being significantly less enjoyable than being engaged in an external activity [7
]. In our study, there were cross-cultural differences in judging the period of “just thinking”, which were explainable through variations in individual differences. One such cross-cultural difference was “experience with meditation”. This brings us back to our specific subgroup, students of “Social Work/Social Education”, who through their curricula are exposed to techniques of mindful concentration, which might explain the high levels of positive affect and relaxation in our study group.