Kieran Fox and Kalina Christoff, cognitive neuroscientists in UBC’s Department of Psychology, have recently published a paper ‘Is thinking really aversive? A commentary on Wilson et al.’s Just think: the challenges of the disengaged mind‘ in the journal Frontiers.
This opinion piece is a response to a controversial study published in the journal Science. The study, ‘Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mind’, concluded that people may prefer an electric shock over being alone with their own thoughts. This idea received doubt – and criticism – from the research community.
Christoff and Fox’s research focuses on the importance of daydreaming and how letting your mind wander can lead to a more creative and insightful mind. You can learn more about their research here: christofflab.ca
Kieran Fox, lead author of the commentary, discusses his research on mind-wandering and what led to the response in this Q and A.
First of all, what compelled you to author a paper in response to this study?
When we first saw this study published this summer, we were really surprised by the findings, because every previous study of the emotional aspects of mind-wandering or other kinds of ‘spontaneous’ thoughts has shown that, actually, people enjoy them. There is typically a pretty wide range of emotion that comes up, but on average every study has found that there is trend toward thoughts being pleasant and positive, overall. So we wanted to dig into their dataset in more detail and see what was going on.
What surprised you most about the claims in the study?
The claim not only that thinking is unpleasant or aversive, but that it is so aversive that people would rather shock themselves than think. This really went counter to all previous research over the past 50 years. When we looked into the study’s dataset in more detail, we found very little evidence that this was in fact the case. For example, the majority of participants never shocked themselves at all in the ‘Shock’ study. Of those who did, not one of them reported any negative or aversive thoughts that would have led them to shock themselves to escape from their own minds, and in fact the majority of participants reported explicitly pleasant and happy thoughts about upcoming weekend parties, summer vacations, etc. Moreover, when the researchers asked them what their motivation was for shocking themselves, almost everyone reported that the shock had been interesting or compelling in some way and they were curious to re-experience it again. Not a single person even reported the shock as unpleasant after re-experiencing it, much less an escape from their thoughts.
The authors ignore this wealth of data from their own dataset and instead offer their own ad hoc interpretations of what was going on. The main argument of our commentary is that their explanations are not only groundless, but directly contradict their own dataset.
What has your research shown about mind-wandering?
Our work, as well as that of our collaborators and colleagues, has shown that mind-wandering is characterized by an enormous variety of mental content and emotional qualities. The most interesting findings, I think, from our group in particular are that high-level prefrontal executive brain regions are very reliably recruited during mind-wandering. The function of these areas during daydreaming is poorly understood, but it is in line with the subjective reports, which show that people are often planning, thinking about the future, and reassessing the past when they mind-wander. These all sound like useful things to be doing with your mind, and we think that prefrontal executive brain regions are critically involved, especially in these ‘useful’ or ‘goal-related’ forms of mind-wandering.
What do you hope will come from your response?
I hope that people interested in these topics will look at the Science paper in more detail and draw their own conclusions. It is easier to try to draw monolithic, simplistic conclusions about mind-wandering, because it is such a complex topic, but this really does not do the phenomenon justice. Mind-wandering is something the brain engages in constantly and automatically – these are good reasons to suspect some kind of functionality. I hope research will keep trying to explore what these functions might be, and avoid making sensationalistic claims unsupported by empirical data.
Read the full commentary here: Is thinking really aversive? A commentary on Wilson et al.’s “Just think: the challenges of the disengaged mind”
Video: Kieran Fox discussing daydreaming
For more on research by Kieran Fox and Prof. Kalina Christoff’s lab, visit the following links: