I recently started reading Dale Allison’s Encountering Mystery, a book packed with discussions about various religious experiences people sometimes report. It’s been a fun read so far. Toward the end of his chapter on prayer, he cites a study that caught my eye. He writes,
“A few years ago, psychologists at Harvard and the University of Virginia wanted to learn how people would react when placed in a bare room with nothing to do but think for fifteen minutes. (The study included, in addition to college students, people recruited from a church and a farmer’s market.) The researchers gave participants this choice: either you can sit alone with your thoughts, or you can push a button that will give you a nasty electrical shock. The vast majority found sitting and thinking both difficult and unpleasant—so unpleasant and difficult that they preferred to push the button and inflict pain. On average they pushed the button seven times. They preferred pain over being alone with their thoughts for a mere quarter of an hour.”
(Dale C. Allison, Jr., Encountering Mystery, 70-71; citing Timothy D. Wilson et al., “Just Think: The Challenges of the Disengaged Mind,” Science 345 : 75-77)
This would be hilarious if it weren’t so sad.
Allison cites this within the context of lamenting our addiction to screens, which arguably contributes to the corrosion of our attention spans. It’s no secret that we have become intimately tethered to our smartphones. One wonders if we’re doing something terrible to our minds, like training them to become dependent upon the next stimulus: the next text message ding or the happy chime that alerts us to the latest social media comment.
By inviting (and indulging in) such interruptions every single day, we condition our minds toward a habit of distraction, the result of which is mental fragmentation. In the end, our patience for engaging in any form of meaningful thought becomes stunted. When we attempt it, we can manage to do so only briefly—and not a moment longer, for we must go searching for the next buzz. So, we prematurely sit the book down to sneak a glance at our inbox, aimlessly scroll through social media, pillage through some instagram reels, take an anxious peek at the latest news (soundbites only, of course). We thirst for information, but only the sort that allows us to consume quickly, for we refuse to commit to any process or work or effort to gain anything meaningful. We need stuff now. The life of patient reflection is itself a drag; it’s become odd, taboo, and nearly blasphemous. These days slow is sin because quick is in.
This obviously has important ramifications for religious devotion. That’s why Allison follows his remarks above with a question, one that should lead people of faith to think long and hard—if we can—about the situation we’re in. He asks,
“How likely is it that people who cannot bear to be alone without distraction, who are instantly restless without external stimulus, will carve out lengthy periods for private prayer of any sort?” (p. 71)