Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Default Thoughts

In a popular Freudian cartoon, the artist uses a nude female body in various poses to depict a man’s brain. The cartoon corresponds to a certain spurious scientific statistic, which claims men think about sex anywhere from every seven seconds to a few times an hour. Although I find this statistic ridiculous and superfluous, it does raise an interesting question. What do we think about when we are bored? For most of our waking hours, our minds are focused on getting us through the present moment, whether it be holding a conversation, making a deposit at the bank, or completing a task at work or school. There are some times, however, when the mind is unoccupied. This is often the case during movement, either of the body itself or within a vehicle. Someone who is walking, running, or on a long highway drive experiences little mental stimulation, and is thus free (or forced, depending on your perspective) to let his mind wander.

Typically the mind gravitates to whatever issue is most pertinent in the person’s life—financial problems, a floundering relationship, or a daunting task that lies ahead. Almost invariably these preoccupations tend to be with negative things, either reminiscing about a lost moment in the past or dreading an event in the future. (Another common way to pass the time is entertaining oneself with the memory of a humorous incident, often producing a smile or chuckle incomprehensible to bystanders.)

For some reason the human mind is cursed to obsess over unpleasant issues in its free time; happy thoughts just do not hold our attention the way disappointing ones do. Freud might say we all have an unconscious “suffering wish” that compels us to torture ourselves with thoughts we know disturb us. It’s the mental equivalent of sniffing our fingers after touching something we know will smell bad. This attraction to mental anguish may be driven by a deeper desire to incite pity or empathy from others, thereby experiencing an essential quality of the human condition.

For years my default thoughts concerned my girlfriend (and later ex-girlfriend). During our relationship, most of these thoughts were admittedly quite positive. After our breakup, however, my feelings and memories turned sharply negative. I was plagued by a sense of loss and betrayal, as well as bitter nostalgia and anger. These thoughts were much more tenacious than prior pleasant ones; not only did they fill the dead space in between other thought processes, but they invaded and conquered vast swaths of mental territory, making concentration on other topics nearly impossible.

Unpleasant thoughts tend to be inherently circular, resulting in an endless positive feedback loop. Trapped inside our own heads, we are unable to comfort ourselves or find closure. Needing an outlet for these intrusive thoughts, but fearing alienating my friends with constant talk about the same old seemingly unsolvable problems, I resorted to seeing a psychological counselor, as well as scribbling countless pages in my journal. Getting the thoughts out of my head and onto something tangible did in fact help relieve the mental burden, albeit temporarily.

Now these private moments of contemplation are becoming ever more scarce. Portable technology—like iPods, laptops, and cellphones—are eliminating the erstwhile occasions for daydreaming, rendering us increasingly reliant on the external world for stimulation. Rarely is there a chance to escape this connectivity and let our minds wander as they once did. Given my hypothesis that this mental wanderlust is inevitably unpleasant, I do indeed enjoy the reduction in potential opportunities for it. Nonetheless, I am still intensely interested in what subjects my mind turns to in its downtime, and I fantasize about the ability to carry out a large-scale, longitudinal study on the state of idle minds throughout the world. Understanding our default thoughts is the key to understanding the nature of our deepest wishes and desires; they are our conscious unconscious.

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