This summer, we noted research that found a significant percentage of subjects preferred to suffer an electric shock rather than be alone with their thoughts. Alva Noë revisits the results, asserting that “there is good reason to doubt some of the findings of the study”:
Take, for example, the most widely discussed result: that some significant percentage of subjects administered a minor non-painful shock to themselves — like familiar household static electricity — when they might otherwise have spent six to 15 minutes quietly in the presence of their own thoughts alone. Notice, to begin with, that the subjects were wearing a self-shocking apparatus. Under those conditions, it strikes me that exploring the effects of shocking oneself, testing and reflecting on one’s responses, simply indulging in curiosity about it, should be counted as a form of engagement with one’s thoughts rather than a flight from them.
He zooms out to consider thinking’s complicated relationship with pleasure:
We tend to think of thinking as cerebral and inward looking and we contrast that with a kind of selfless outward orientation to what is going on around us. But this is confused. Is the mathematician working out a problem on paper looking out or in? And what about the visitor to a gallery concentrating on a painting. Isn’t this kind of looking (at the painting) or doing (writing on the paper) one of the forms that thinking can take for us?
And something similarly goes for the idea that we can simply range complex human psychological attitudes and choices along a spectrum from aversive to extremely pleasurable. As Fox et al. explain, “just thinking” can be valuable, meaningful and important in ways that are tied to, but not the same as, being simply pleasurable. The same is true, perhaps, of any form of what we call exercise. It can be hard to make yourself do your work out. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t highly pleasurable. And even when it is, in some sense, aversive, that doesn’t mean that you don’t value it highly.