A seated chimpanzee stares at the floor as if bored with everything.

Boredom

 

Why, when we should be paying attention to something repetitive, do we get bored?

Being bored interrupts memory storage. Nothing worth remembering is being experienced. We’re bored when we are blocked from doing something more satisfying, more…memorable. It’s a fascinating experience, if you’re investigating someone else’s boredom. Timothy Wilson and others at the University of Virginia (along with Dan Gilbert of Harvard U. and Prudential Insurance) found that people would give themselves electrical shocks if that was the only alternative to being bored.

Boredom goes back a long way, but then working memory goes back even further. If boredom had no value we might expect it to have gone the way of fur and fangs in human evolution. Science writer Maria Konnikova reminds us that boredom can be productive even if it’s not fun, like booster shots for the mind, particularly the default mode network*, When it’s not productive but it is stressful, as in waiting for a job interview to begin, the result may be body-focused repetitive behaviors like nail-biting.

If your books are sometimes boring, give them a thumbs-up in gratitude. Lots of folks have forgotten how to be bored.

Woman's face is shown in profile against a background of monotonous clocks.

BIO: Let’s distinguish boredom from pathological apathy and athymhormia. Boredom is associated with activation of the brain’s default mode network. Although it can be pathological, it is more likely an adaptive trait.

The default mode network is the daydreaming circuit in the brain that projects past experience into future imagination to prepare behavior. It’s normal, but variations may appear in ADHD. We shouldn’t be alarmed by a moderate amount of mind-wandering. A lot of it is healthy, even useful. You can watch more about it here or there.

The default mode network uses memory to plan for the future. It makes use of boredom, as Steve Jobs may have intuited.

PSYCHO: Complaints of boredom are rampant in secondary and higher education, but is this trivial, like an unkempt appearance in an online class, or interesting? Is boredom pathological or—at least sometimes—normal, even helpful?

We make use of boredom almost as much as we do attention. Boredom offers advantages. It may be good for us and it is hard to distinguish from some forms of pleasure.

We should welcome downtime. Science writer Maria Konnikova reminds us that boredom can be productive even if it’s not fun, like booster shots for the mind, particularly the default mode network**. When it’s not productive but it is stressful, as in waiting for a job interview to begin, the result may be body-focused repetitive behaviors like nail-biting. All that extra cortisol. At least watching a Suzuki video for the third time spares you that.

In working memory, executive control is the part that gets bored and makes you start doodling during a lecture or can break down and leave you reading a page over and over without comprehension. It’s sort of an interesting experience, when you think about it.

 

SOCIAL: Lacking good evidence of mental telepathy, any collective demonstration of boredom must depend on monotony or social signals like yawning, if yawning is contagious.

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