Even the most fabulous, high-flying lives hit pockets of dead air, periods when the sales go slack. Movie stars get marooned in DMV lines. Prime ministers sit with frozen smiles through interminable state events. Living-large rappers endure empty August afternoons, pacing the mansion, checking the refrigerator, staring idly out of the window, baseball droning on the radio. Wondering: When does the mail come, exactly?
Scientists know plenty about boredom, too, though more as a result of poring through thickets of meaningless data than from studying the mental state itself. Much of the research on the topic has focused on the bad company it tends to keep, from depression and overeating to smoking and drug use.
Yet boredom is more than a mere flagging of interest or a precursor to mischief. Some experts say that people tune things out of good reasons, and that over time boredom becomes a tool for sorting information an increasingly sensitive spam filter. In various fields including neuroscience and education, research suggests that falling into a numbed trance allows the brain to recast the outside world in ways that can be productive and creative at least as often as they are disruptive.
In a paper in the Cambridge Journal of Education, in England reviewed decades of research and theory on boredom, and concluded that it’s time that boredom “be recognized as a legitimate human emotion that can be central to learning and creativity.”
Psychologists have most often studied boredom using a 28-item questionnaire that asks people to rate how closely a list of sentences applies to them: “Time always seems to be passing too slowly,’’ for instance.
High scores in these tests tend to correlate with high scores on measures of depression and impulsivity. But it is not clear which comes first, proneness to boredom, or the mood and behavior problems. It’s the difference between the sort of person who can look at a pool of mud and find something interesting, and someone who has a hard time getting absorbed in anything.
Boredom as a temporary state is another matter, and in part reflects the obvious: That the brain has concluded there is nothing new or useful it can learn from an environment, a person, an event, a paragraph.
But it is far from a passive neural shrug. Using brain-imaging technology, neuroscientists have found that the brain is highly active when disengaged, consuming only about 5% lesser energy in its resting “default state” than when involved in routine tasks.
That slight reduction can make a big difference in terms of time perception. The seconds usually seem to pass more slowly when the brain is idling than when it is absorbed. And those stretched seconds are not the live-in-the moment, meditative variety, either. They are frustrated, restless moments. That combination, psychologists argue, makes boredom a state that demands relief if not from a catnap or a conversation, then from some mental game.
When the external and internal conditions are right, boredom offers a person the opportunity for a constructive response, as written by co-author of the review in the Cambridge journal in an email passage. Some evidence for this can be seen in semiconscious behaviors, like doodling during a dull class, braiding strands of hair, folding notebook paper into odd shapes. Day dreaming too can be a kind of constructive self entertainment, psychologists say, especially if the mind is turning over problem.
That is the exact reason that organizations test candidates for aptitude and attitude so that the area of work assigned to them they get interested and can fully focus on it.