Parents Talk Back

Flunking a Six-Minute Test

It’s so hard for some people to do nothing for six minutes, they would rather fail a school assignment, cheat on it or literally shock themselves.

Those are the startling results from a six-minute challenge issued by a professor for the past three years. Tim Bono, a psychology professor at Washington University in St. Louis, teaches a class on positive psychology to about 300 upperclassmen. The assignment was inspired by a study published in Science in 2014 about an experiment at the University of Virginia.

Bono gives his students these simple instructions:

Find a quiet space and entertain yourself with thoughts of something pleasant for six minutes. Put away any distractions such as your computer or phone, turn off the TV or radio, and sit in silence for six minutes (set an alarm), occupying yourself only with the thoughts in your head. You may think about anything you wish (going on a hike, having dinner at your favorite restaurant, being on vacation, etc.).

There are only two rules: Remain seated. Stay awake.

In the past three years that Bono has given this task, he found:

-- Only 67 percent were able to complete the assignment and follow both rules the entire time.

-- Among those who were able to do so, the majority (56 percent) reported that it was at least somewhat difficult to concentrate.

-- Among the one-third who couldn’t do it, the most common distraction was their phones. More than 30 percent of this group had to check their phones at least once. In a six-minute period.

-- Some described the activity as “particularly tough,” “a real hassle,” and “extremely hard.”

Remember, the assignment is to sit and literally do nothing. And these are among the top students in the country.

One student even admitted how such a short span of time feels completely different in another context.

“At first I kept wanting to check my phone, and a few times I thought, ‘This is pointless, I’m wasting my time,’” the student wrote. “I kept thinking how hard it was to sit and just think for six minutes. Then I realized that anytime I get worried about the future or stressed about an upcoming event, I often spend much more than six minutes singularly focused on worrying about that event.”

In the original experiment, lead researcher Tim Wilson found that some subjects would even resort to administering electric shocks on themselves to simply be doing something.

Participants were wired and given the opportunity to shock themselves during the thinking period. All of them had already had a chance to try out the device. Among those who said they would pay money not to feel the shock again, a quarter of the women and two-thirds of the men gave themselves a shock during the short thinking period.

Also among the test subjects, 32 percent admitted to cheating by using their phones, listening to music, or doing anything but just sitting there.

Imagine how quickly six minutes disappears when scrolling through social media or watching a mindless television show. Why would some of us literally choose pain over a few minutes of being alone with our thoughts? Wilson suggested that mammals evolved to monitor their environments for dangers and opportunities, which makes focusing just internally for several minutes unnatural and difficult.

We are wired for distraction, it seems.

Bono says the assignment helps his students understand this automatic, natural tendency of our minds to disengage with tasks requiring focused attention and seek stimulation elsewhere. It makes sense why we feel the urge to check our email, Facebook or text messages when we start working on a project or studying for an exam. The ability to override this impulse and focus is a valuable skill, and research suggests it can be developed over time with practice.

“By strengthening our attentional muscles, it allows us to identify when our mind is wandering and bring it back to the task at hand,” Bono said. The interruptions that feel good in the short-term are at odds with what is good for us in the long term, he explained.

Try the six-minute experiment yourself, and ask your children to attempt it.

The results may be shocking.

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