A much cited study from researchers at the University of Virginia and Harvard (actually a survey of 11 studies) has found that most people, across all age groups, would rather not sit alone in quiet with their thoughts. The majority would opt for some distraction or point of focus outside of their own mind over six to fifteen minutes of silent contemplation. In one of the studies, two-thirds of the men and one quarter of the women preferred to give themselves a mild electric shock over sitting alone in silence, even in their own homes, for a few minutes.
Another study has found that 56% of people in the United States cannot simply sit and watch TV without engaging with other digital media.
It as also been found that an ambient noise level of about 70 decibels (the hum of the neighborhood coffee shop) boosts creative thinking more than silence does.
When I was growing up I often heard that TV was going to rot our minds and ruin our focus. Has it, or has it just become boring in a world of increased stimulation? And as for the first study mentioned, are we too given to distraction, or are we designed to always interact with the world and not disconnect? And silence inhibiting creativity relative to a (somewhat) noisy environment? How is one given to meditation to react?
Before we get all condemning of less enlightened people and their distractibility, we should consider evolutionary biology. Maybe it's not the modern world, but our distant past that leads to the results of these studies. To the hunter gatherers we were long before we created civilization, sitting in quiet contemplation, focusing on one thing, would have been a liability. In a world of scarcity and predators, constant surveillance, or in modern terms, always being plugged in, was necessary for survival. It took many years of relatively stable society and economy to free up an enlightened few to simply sit and think up new things or achieve great insights - apparently in coffee shops. Survival requires distractibility, or else we might not notice food, threats, and opportunity. And survival trumps great insight in the hierarchy of human development.
Perhaps meditation is our unnatural state, and a relatively recent pastime in our long evolution. Maybe quiet time for just sitting and noticing is as much a creation of modern times as the devices that distract us today. It is telling that for centuries monks were cloistered away and supported by the local community so that they could have the freedom and time to just sit. The work done in monasteries has done much to make the civilization we know today possible. But the work was done in as unnatural a place as the corner Starbucks. Certainly a more disconnected place.
As for the trepidation most feel about sitting quietly with themselves, I feel it. If I drift away from the cushion for a few days or, as has happened, a few weeks, I'm often terrified when it comes time to re-enter my practice. I might confront something uncomfortable. I might miss something.
So while many meditators have responded to these studies with scorn and disbelief, I understand. Some people are drawn to practice, some are not. Some who are drawn to practice still require guided meditation, maybe just another form of distraction or background noise at 70 decibels. But we need to come off of our high horses and remember that at the root of mindfulness is the noticing of distractibility. Distractibility is the canvas we work with. Our minds present us with information, and we constantly seek out more. We may be meant to be mindful, but we're certainly meant to be stimulated. Different times present us with different means, and each of us responds to external stimuli and opportunities for contemplation in unique ways.
I take from these studies that, just as there are many different ways to learn, there are many different ways to relax or gain insight. We each find our own practice and our own comfort level with ourselves and our ideals. Whether you press the button during the experiment, or sit long alone with your thoughts, you're still going to shock yourself, sooner or later.