Turning the Spotlight on Boredom

Almost every student can relate to that unpleasant feeling of having to listen to a monotonous lecture in a dreary course, which makes every fiber of your being scream in protest “I want to get out of here!! Please make it stop!” You might then let your mind wander, letting your attention slip away, and imagine better uses for your time, like hanging out with your friends, contemplating the different flavors of beer (bacon?!), or planning what you will eat at the cafeteria for lunch (this writer’s inner life is quite rich as you can see).

A common experience, boredom has been extensively studied in many different domains – in leisure, in the workplace and of course – in education. But in the past few years there has been growing interest in neuroscience: questions like “how is the experience of boredom reflected in physiological measures?”, “What is happening in the brain when we’re bored?”, “What are we willing to do to escape boredom?” And finally, “could boredom be beneficial?” In this post, I will explore these questions.

Boredom and Attention

As with any scientific investigation, first one must try to define boredom. Eastwood and colleagues aimed to synthesize different theories of boredom into one definition, and conceptualized boredom as “the aversive experience of wanting, but being unable, to engage in satisfying activity”.  Most importantly, they proposed to define boredom in terms of attention as its underlying mental process.

It seems that in the digital age, boredom is the enemy. Websites and online content are designed to keep us from clicking away. It is therefore not surprising that so many websites containing the word “bored” in their title are full of engaging and entertaining content described in very few words, and are designed to appeal to users with short attention spans. This humble writer also has this affliction – a video longer than two minutes? Why did you not warn me in advance!? Read a blog post not written as a list?

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Source: http://www.tumbler.com

In a study exploring the relationship between boredom and attention, Malkovsky and colleagues compared the performance of individuals with high versus low boredom proneness, in a sustained attention task (pressing a button or withholding an action as a reaction to a visual cue). Not surprisingly, results showed that individuals who are easily bored performed poorly in measures of sustained attention.

This study also suggested that highly boredom-prone individuals could be characterized as either apathetic or agitated. Apathetic boredom proneness was associated more with attention lapses (such as putting your wallet in the fridge – true story!), and agitated boredom proneness was linked to increased symptoms of adult ADHD (such as trouble getting started on a task). Although this study demonstrated intriguing results, it relied heavily on subjective self-report measures and correlations, which cannot reveal directionality or causation. Thus there is need for more close-hand investigations.

Furthermore, boredom is an experiential state, which is different from a tendency to become bored. Therefore, using subjective self-report measures of boredom proneness might miss the mark in investigating boredom as a distinct mental state. Investigating boredom as an experiential state (“state boredom”) using cognitive neuroscience requires a means to successfully create and manipulate a state of boredom in the lab, developing measures of the experience itself, as well as finding the objective and overt signs of boredom. These objective and overt signs can be a pattern of neural activity or simply, a physiological signature.

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Kitty displaying a common physiological response to boredom

The Psychophysiological Signature of Boredom

A fairly recent study by Merrifield and Danckert aimed to characterize the psychophysiological signature of boredom as a distinct construct which differs from other affective states (i.e. sadness). Using a scale measure of state boredom, and physiological measures, the study demonstrated that the physiological characteristics of state boredom, relative to sadness, are increased heart rate, decreased skin conductance, and increased cortisol levels. However, relative to baseline, boredom induced increased skin conductance. This indicates that a) boredom is indeed a separate psychophysiological state, and b) that boredom is associated with increased arousal and decreased attention.

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To What Lengths Would We Go to Escape Boredom?

There’s a running gag in the movie “Airplane,” when the protagonist, Ted Striker, repeatedly “bores to death” whichever unfortunate soul happens to be seated beside him. He goes into long boring stories, and you see flashbacks to the war and his relationship with his former lover, Elaine. When the movie cuts back to the scene, the passengers are so bored that, with no way to escape, they try to kill themselves in various ways – one hangs himself, one passenger douses himself in gasoline (only to be saved in the last minute), another stabs himself repeatedly – all to escape Ted’s long boring stories. But how realistic is this comedic anecdote?

Recently, Havermans and colleagues asked whether boredom promotes an increased drive for satisfying rewarding stimulation or more plainly – a drive to escape boredom. Two separate experiments were conducted, differing in the kind of “escape” given from boredom.

In this study, participants were divided into two conditions: a neutral condition in which they watched a documentary for one hour, and a boring condition in which they watched a monotonous and repetitive video for one hour. In both conditions, participants were given free access to eat M&Ms (experiment 1), or to self-administer electric shocks in varying degrees of intensity (experiment 2).

One might intuitively guess the results of this study. Compared to the neutral condition, the boring condition promoted eating M&Ms in the first experiment, but participants in the second experiment also preferred to administer more electric shocks to themselves at greater intensity. These results suggest that the unpleasant state of boredom induces a strong drive to escape a monotonous stimulus, even to the point of self-inflicting pain.

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Camel prefers M&Ms though

But Could Boredom Be Beneficial?

Being an aversive affective state, a dysfunction in attention, boredom is often regarded as a problem to be solved, and as a hindrance to action and productivity. However, Bench and Lench provide a different perspective, suggesting that boredom encourages the pursuit of alternative goals. They explain that while being bored, someone’s attention to a current boring task is reduced, and arousal increases to seek out alternatives.

In a similar vein, some of the recent findings described above may further support this claim: the psychophysiological signature of boredom of increased arousal and decreased attention, and the finding that boredom does not simply induce a drive to seek out alternative pleasant stimuli to escape it, but that boredom may drive us to seek change in general, even if the only other alternative is unpleasant.

In this perspective, the state of boredom, while it is an unpleasant experience, might actually be viewed as beneficial and adaptive, driving the individual to move on from an activity when it has failed to maintain their attention (or failed to engage it in the first place), and seek out novel alternative activities and stimuli. In this view, one might even say that in a certain way, boredom might not be the enemy of motivation, but a driving force to seek out new goals.

The study of boredom as a separate and distinct construct is a growing line of research in cognitive neuroscience. There is still a long way to go in establishing distinct measures and induction of state boredom in the lab, in identifying the neuronal patterns underlying boredom, and in investigating its relationship to attention networks in the brain. But it can also be worthwhile to examine this construct in its many facets and ask these open questions: why do we experience boredom? Could boredom be adaptive? If so – why? These questions are especially relevant in the digital age, where sustained attention is a scarce resource.

Edit: The author Neil Gaiman (Sandman, American Gods, and many more) has recently shared some advice to writers and creatives of all sorts: “Get bored” he said. Noticing that ideas come from daydreaming, from a blank space that boredom creates.

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