My grandmother used to climb into the lake in her bathing suit with a ruffled skirt. She would take two or three steps away from the dock and then wait, standing still. Before long, she would shriek—“it bit me”—and dash up the ladder back to the dock.
After she caught her breath, she would climb back into the water, take two or three steps away from the dock and stand still. She enjoyed the suspense of waiting, the rise of adrenalin.
She was waiting for something to nip her—perhaps a blue gill or a perch. She was playing peek-a-boo with fish: She knew what was coming, but she didn’t know when.
You’ve never done anything like that, have you? Seek out a bit of ticklish pain to break the monotony? Read a suspenseful novel or watch a horror movie?
Is it possible that we prefer brief pain over boredom?
A University of Virginia study asked participants to “entertain” themselves with their own thoughts for 6 to 15 minutes, to be alone with their thoughts and nothing else.
Without the crutch of distractions, 58% rated the challenge difficult to somewhat difficult. 32% cheated. They were bored and could not get through 15 minutes without resorting to their phones, their music or concocting a task.
The experimenters then added an electrifying twist: subjects could press a button to receive a painful electric shock during their thinking time. One quarter of the women and two thirds of the men zapped themselves to break up the monotony of thinking.
Boredom comes and goes. No one enjoys it.
But, there are times when you have no choice. Social custom or your best interest dictate that you remain in temporary captivity. You get bored. But, why?
Boredom is a lack of either internal or external stimulus or it can be a mismatch between desire and situation. Usually, we blame our boredom on our environment’s lack of interest. We long for novelty and change.
The human sensory system evolved to respond to new stimulus, to detect changes and cues around us. Our eyes are drawn to movement, our ears perk up at a new sound. So much so that the familiar goes unnoticed: the city sleepers grow accustomed to the night sounds; their brains dismissing the noise. However, when the city sleeper encounters an August night in the countryside full of unfamiliar sounds, they can’t sleep because it’s too “noisy.” They are disturbed by the unexplained sounds in the new environment.
A keen eye for new stimulus kept our Paleolithic ancestors alive. Detecting the new disturbance kept one from becoming another animal’s lunch. Perhaps, a sense of boredom developed as a warning of complacency, triggering a return to alert engagement.
Boredom may continue to function as an early warning system: your body’s signal to make changes to prevent depression or anger.
Boredom appears in at least two different forms: low arousal—lethargy and sloth; or high arousal—agitation and restlessness. The heart responds in kind: slowing down with low arousal and beating faster with high arousal.
Some argue that boredom is beneficial as a launching pad for imagination leading to creativity. In this view, the anguish of boredom forces one to find solutions. But, the simple solutions to boredom is to change what you’re doing, where you are or what you’re thinking (or all three.)
Many people seek that change through drugs or alcohol, which may work temporarily, but can also engender unhealthy consequences including falling deeper into a pit of boredom.
We avoid boredom. We hate it. We walk the streets with ears plugged with music and heads down to read our phones. Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook feed us constant lollipops of useless novelty. Many would rather jolt themselves electrically than sit and ponder.
The word boredom first appears in English in 1852 in Dickens’ novel Bleak House, seeming to correspond with a new age of leisure among the upper classes. To be bored, one must know of alternatives and be free to make choices.
However, upper class Europeans were not the first to feel boredom. Wall graffiti preserved in Pompeii by the 79 CE volcano prove otherwise:
O walls, you have held up so much tedious graffiti that I am amazed that you have not already collapsed in ruin.
It’s hard to top that zinger—especially in Latin. But, of the 11,000 pieces of graffiti collected from Pompeii, most of it is boring—scatological and banal.
In the 4th or 5th century, the Romans of Beneventum erected a statue to honor a local consul, Tonius Marcellinus, whose good deeds rescued them from the “tediums” as the plaque reads. No further evidence exists, but probably Marcellinus invented casual Fridays or organized local bowling tournaments.
Boredom is nothing new. What has changed over the centuries is how we deal with boredom.
Today, we position ourselves to be bombarded by constant novelty. Our attention tap dances across sparkling gobbets of stimuli. A Fast Company article on the creative benefits of boredom promised that it was only “a three minute read.” Much longer and you’ll get bored.
According to BBC News, boredom “…can be a dangerous and disruptive state of mind that damages your health”; yet research “…suggest[s] that without boredom we couldn’t achieve our creative feats.”
Is boredom dangerous? Or, is it the launching pad for imagination? When we’re bored, we turn to our imagination to find relief. Imagination generates ideas which in turn fosters creativity.
The MIT roboticist, Rodney Brooks, achieved one of his brilliant insights into artificial intelligence during a time of “boredom.” He was visiting his first wife’s family who lived in a stilt house in Southern Thailand. The family confined Brooks—an Australian with no ability to speak Thai—to the deck of the house. Surrounded by water, nowhere to go and no one to speak with, Brooks was bored but curious: he devoted his time to observing and thinking.
He observed bugs—river bugs, butterflies and house flies.
At that time, robots were programmed to make a complete map of a room before moving. The robot would calculate, move 12 inches and then stop to recalculate, requiring intense data processing.
House flies, on the other hand, navigate the world very well with nothing but a bug brain—100,000 neurons. (Humans have approximately 86 billion neurons and the African elephant has 257 billion.)
With little comparative computing power, a fly can still buzz circles around the robot. Brooks wondered why? By altering his state of mind from boredom to curiosity, Brooks developed a powerful insight: robotic movement did not require knowing the complete landscape, but rather knowing how to respond to whatever the organism encountered.
Was it boredom that lead to the insight or, was it his decision to redirect his attention to observation and thought? His ideas emerged from his innate curiosity about the world and his choice to engage with the world.
The boredom that breeds creativity is, in fact, channeling your imagination in response to boredom, as Brooks did. Creative thoughts can also emerge through day dreaming.
So, drift off in your day dreams. Wade into the water to relax. Play peek-a-boo with the fish.
And, when you feel bored, let your imagination be the anecdote.