Clause 61: The Pushback Blog

Because ideas have consequences

Mind Control

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It’s news, but it is not exactly surprising: according to a study reported in The Atlantic, most people would rather receive electric shocks than to be left alone with their mind for company.

In the most, ahem, shocking study, subjects were wired up and given the chance to shock themselves during the thinking period if they desired. They’d all had a chance to try out the device to see how painful it was. And yet, even 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 zap when left with their own thoughts.
— “People Prefer Electric Shocks to Being Alone With Their Thoughts”, The Atlantic, 3 Jul 2014,

The ability to reflect — to be alone with your thoughts and get some positive benefit — is not something that just happens.

It’s Just the Normal Noises in Here

Based on the conversations I have had with other people over the course of my life, I am convinced that most people’s heads are very noisy places, from which they seek to escape. Nathaniel Branden wrote a poem about them decades ago:

These are the persons
who cannot bear to be alone;
who cannot live without sleeping pills;
who drink too much to calm a nervousness that comes too often;
who jump at every unexpected sound;
who feel a constant pressing need to be amusing and to entertain;
who go to too many movies they have no desire to see and too many gatherings they have no desire to attend;
who sacrifice any vestige of independent self-confidence for an obsessive concern with what others think of them;
who long to be emotionally dependent or to be depended upon;
who succumb to periodic spells of unaccountable depression;
who submerge their existence in the passivity of unchosen routines and unchallenged duties, and, as they watch their years slip by, wonder, in occasional spurts of frustrated anguish, what has robbed them of their chance to live;
who run from one meaningless sexual affair to another;
who seek membership in the kind of collective movements that dissolve personal responsibility.
A vast, anonymous assemblage of men and women who have accepted fear as a built-in-not-to-be-wondered-about fixture of their soul, dreading even to identify that which they feel is fear or to inquire into the nature of that which they seek to escape.

The problem is not that people are incapable of mental activity; it is that they are not taught that they even have a responsibility to control it, let alone how. They are not stupid — they just don’t understand that intelligence is like driving: you are responsible for where the car goes and what you run over, and you don’t just put someone behind the wheel and wait for wonderful things to happen.

Just because a thought or feeling walks up to your mind and knocks on the door, that doesn’t mean you have to let it in. I believe that most people do not understand this. Your mind is not a nature preserve that plants and animals occupy of their own accord; it is a set of rooms that you furnish, either by design or by default. Some thoughts and feelings just don’t deserve house room. And the more intelligent you are, the more capacity you have in there, the harder you have to work to furnish it, to keep it clean and orderly and to prevent unhealthy junk from accumulating.

When I was growing up, I heard all about bad attitudes (for example, the assertion that I had one). However, I never heard explained that I had a responsibility to maintain positive control of what I thought about. I believed that the thoughts that came into my mind were facts of life, and it was foolish to deny them. Actually, the thoughts are meanings. Facts by themselves are very boring, like reading an almanac. It is the meanings that make the facts matter, and we control the meanings.

Without controlling the meanings that you are willing to admit, your mind becomes a very noisy place. A sort of Gresham’s Law asserts itself, where bad thoughts and feelings drive out good thoughts and feelings. Most of the people who talk about having a bad attitude are basically saying, “Whatever nastiness you want to admit into your own mind, don’t share it with the rest of us.” In fact, this is the necessary fallback position the rest of us have to take with an adult who won’t control what goes on in his head, but teenagers need more than that. They need grownups to set the expectation that you should expect to have to control what goes on in your head.

It’s so easy to slip
It’s so easy to fall
And let your memory drift
And do nothin’ at all
All the love that you missed
All the people that you can’t recall
Do they really exist at all?
— Lowell George/Martin Kibbee

If a person is going to admit any thought that shows up into her consciousness, it is going to get very noisy in there. Without any positive control, she will find the thoughts meeting up with all the worst things her parents ever said, every negative experience she has ever had and everything she has ever worried about. Yes, I can understand why being activity busy, having people around that she doesn’t really like or even receiving an electric shock would be preferable to her over the screeching racket of these out of control thoughts in her head.


Why is entertaining ourselves so hard? Maybe subjects just couldn’t decide where to steer their thoughts? Nope. In several studies, some were offered topics to fantasize about (going on a beautiful hike, etc.), but that tweak had no effect on difficulty or enjoyment.
— “People Prefer Electric Shocks to Being Alone With Their Thoughts”

The positive value of being alone with one’s thoughts is not to entertain oneself, but to reflect. Only by reflection can a person think about how his life is going, what could have gone better with that last interaction, what do to better next time. Being self-monitoring, which is what grownups have to do, requires reflection.

Man, being reasonable, must get drunk; the best of life is but intoxication.
— Lord Byron

Drugs are the answer, after all, if the question is, “How can I get high as a kite?” or, “How can I make money without working?”
— P. J. O’Rourke, Parliament of Whores, p. 118.

A populace that is seeking bread and circuses each in their own heads is only going to lead to failure. The question is not, “How can we stay entertained and feel better about ourselves?” Rather, it is, “How can I control what goes on in my head so I can become a better person and live a better life?” The way of Byron does not lead to this latter question, because he takes no responsibility for the thoughts he grants admission to his mind.

A man may safely go into himself if what he finds there is not, like Rousseau, his own emotions, but like Buddha, the law of righteousness.
— Irving Babbitt, Rousseau and Romanticism, p. 370.

The person who is seeking only entertainment when alone with her thoughts will be frustrated, because many thoughts are not by nature entertaining. The value in being alone with her thoughts is, as Babbitt elaborated, that she might develop a moral imagination that transcends her experience and allows her to improve her life, instead of sinking to the least common denominator. This is the program that we need if we are to become effective citizens and assert our responsibility as the consenting governed for the destiny of the country.


Written by srojak

July 14, 2014 at 12:37 pm

Posted in Economics, Ethics

Tagged with ,

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