THE BENEFITS OF BOREDOM:
In defence of daydreaming
Boredom has had a lot of bad press over the years. Author Orrin Klapp described boredom as a ‘deficit in the quality of life’; Sigmund Freud believed that people who were prone to daydreaming were neurotic; and German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer called it ‘a reminder of the meaninglessness of human existence’. Even Charles Dickens, who is said to have introduced the verb ‘to bore’ into the English language back in 1852 – in his aptly named novel Bleak House – saw it as such a dreary mental state that he defined it as ‘to pierce, or wear down’.
At least some of this negativity is completely valid: boredom has been linked to the kind of behaviour one is generally encouraged to avoid, such as mindless snacking, inattentive driving, binge-drinking, risky sexual choices, poor impulse control and pathological gambling. Chronic boredom has been identified as a strong predictor of paranoia, and other studies have found that a propensity for boredom was also an indicator of a greater risk for anxiety, depression and OCD. (To be clear, boredom doesn’t cause any of these conditions, but being prone to boredom may be a contributing factor.) Poor academic performance, high dropout rates and mistakes made on the job have also been traced back to boredom.
Most of us will go to great lengths to avoid feeling bored. (It’s why Candy Crush exists, if you ask me.) One study even found that, when given the choice between boredom and pain, a shocking (no pun intended) amount of people chose pain! Two-thirds of the men and a quarter of the women participating in the study chose to give themselves electric shocks rather than sit in a room alone with no distractions for 15 minutes. Another team of psychologists gave participants movies to watch – some were boring, some sad and some neutral. The volunteers watching the boring movies shocked themselves more and harder than the other two groups just to break the monotony.
A pointless emotion?
Sandi Mann, psychologist and the author of The Upside of Downtime: Why
Boredom Is Good, first stumbled onto her pet subject back in the 1990s while she was researching emotions in the workplace. She discovered that, second only to anger, boredom was the most commonly suppressed emotion.
‘It gets such bad press,’ she said. ‘Almost everything seems to be blamed on boredom.’
But Mann knew there had to be more to this seemingly senseless feeling.
‘Every emotion has a purpose – an evolutionary benefit,’ she says. ‘I wanted to know why we have this emotion of boredom, which seems like such a negative, pointless emotion.’ She soon discovered it actually served a greater purpose.
‘When we’re bored, we’re searching for something to stimulate us that we can’t find in our immediate surroundings,’ Mann explains. ‘So we might try to find that stimulation by our minds wandering and going to some place in our heads. That is what can stimulate creativity, because once you start daydreaming and allowing your
WHEN YOUR MIND WANDERS, YOU’RE TAPPING INTO ANOTHER PART OF THE BRAIN CALLED THE ‘DEFAULT MODE NETWORK’.
mind to wander, you start thinking beyond the conscious and into the subconscious. This process allows different connections to take place.’
‘Scientifically, daydreaming is an interesting phenomenon because it speaks to the capacity that people have to create thought in a pure way, rather than thought happening when it’s a response to events in the outside world,’ says psychologist Jonathan Smallwood, who’s been studying mind-wandering for more than 20 years and uses cognitive neuroscience tools.
When you’re consciously performing a task, even a mundane one such as copying over words or numbers, you’re using the ‘executive attention network’ in the brain – the parts that control and constrain your attention.
‘The executive attention network makes it possible for us to relate directly to the world around us – that is, here and now,’ explains neuroscientist Marcus Raichle.
When your mind wanders, however, you’re tapping into a part of the brain called the ‘default mode network’. So even when you’re completely spaced out and not focused on an ‘external, goal-oriented task’, your mind doesn’t ever actually ‘switch off’. Instead, it goes into default mode.
In default mode
With the help of brain-imaging technology, neuroscientists can see what our brains are doing when we’re engaged in an activity, and when we’re daydreaming.
‘Most experimental paradigms and theories tend to involve us showing something to the brain or the mind and watching what happens,’ says Smallwood. ‘Mindwandering is special because it doesn’t fit into that phenomenon.’
In this case, the brain is observed in the absence of external stimuli, and it has given Smallwood a new appreciation for an act that seemed trivial. Daydreaming, he says, is actually so crucial to humankind as a species that ‘it could be at the crux of what makes humans different from less complicated animals’. Mind-wandering lies at the centre of a number of uniquely human skills, from creativity to mapping out and preparing for the future.
Study participants are given nothing else to do but look at a still image while having an MRI, so Smallwood can determine the neural changes that occur during default mode. It turns out we use only 5% less energy in default mode than we do when we’re engaged in active, focused thinking. During the scans, the brains of the test subjects ‘exhibit[ed] very organised, spontaneous activity’, despite… being ‘inattentive’.
‘When you’re given nothing to do, your thoughts don’t stop. You continue to generate thought even when there’s nothing for you to do with the thoughts,’ says Smallwood.
The scans have shown that certain areas of the brain are activated when we go into default mode: the medial temporal lobe, the medial prefrontal cortex, and the posterior cingulate cortex. So what are these parts of the brain responsible for?
‘They’re very active in autobiographical memory [our personal
archive of life experiences], theory of mind [essentially, our ability to imagine what others are thinking and feeling] and – this one’s a doozy – self-referential processing [crafting a coherent sense of self], writes Manoush Zomorodi in her book Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self.
‘When we lose focus on the outside world and drift inward, we’re not shutting down,’ she writes. ‘We’re tapping into a vast trove of memories, imagining future possibilities, dissecting our interactions with people, and reflecting on who we are. It feels like we’re wasting time when we wait for the longest red light in the world to turn green, but the brain is putting ideas and events into perspective.’
Those boring stretches of time give us time to reflect. And they’re very necessary, because as soon as we engage in a task that demands our attention, the default mode network is turned off.
‘Daydreaming is especially crucial for a species like ours, where social interactions are important,’ Smallwood says. ‘That’s because in day-to-day life, the most unpredictable things you encounter are other people. Daydreaming reflects the need to make sense of complicated aspects of life.’
The default mode, says Zomorodi in her TED Talk, is where ‘we connect disparate ideas, we solve some of our most nagging problems, and we do something called “autobiographical planning”. This is when we look back at our lives, we take note of the big moments, we create a personal narrative, then we set goals and figure out what steps we need to take to reach them.’
Great minds think alike
Andreas Elpidorou, a researcher in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Louisville, believes that boredom is the ultimate motivator. In his 2014 academic article ‘The Bright Side of Boredom’, he argues that boredom ‘acts as a regulatory state’ that keeps you in line with your projects.
‘In the absence of boredom, one would remain trapped in unfulfilling situations and miss out on many emotionally, cognitively and socially rewarding experiences. Boredom is both a warning that we are not doing what we want to be doing and a “push” that motivates us to switch goals and projects.’
‘You could say that boredom is an incubator lab for brilliance,’ writes Zomorodi. ‘It’s the messy, uncomfortable, confusing, frustrating place one has to occupy for a while before finally coming up with the winning equation or formula.’ JRR Tolkien, for example, came up with the idea for The
Hobbit when he was a professor at Oxford, during a task he described as ‘very laborious and unfortunately also boring’: a day spent marking exam papers. When he came across a page one student had simply left blank, he was elated.
‘Glorious! Nothing to read,’ he told the BBC in 1968. ‘So I scribbled on it, I can’t think why, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit”’ – words that would later become the opening sentence of one of the most beloved works of fiction ever written.
Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that great artists ‘require a lot of boredom if their work is to succeed. For thinkers and all sensitive spirits, boredom is that disagreeable “windless calm” of the soul that precedes a happy voyage and cheerful winds. They have to bear it and must wait for its effect on them.’
Boredom has also played a pivotal role in many great artistic and scientific breakthroughs. It’s said that Descartes ‘discovered’ the notions of x and y while he was lazing in bed, watching a fly on the ceiling. Einstein homed in on the theory of relativity while he was taking a break from his mathematical exercises and letting his imagination wander. And Archimedes solved a puzzle he’d been struggling with for ages while he was relaxing in the bath.
In 1983, chemist Kary Mullis was driving home from his cabin in the woods when he came up with an idea for duplicating DNA fragments in unlimited quantities – an invention that would later earn him a Nobel Prize in chemistry. He credited that brainwave to his time spent in the car, saying, ‘That’s when I did most of my thinking… because day-to-day life at the lab doesn’t allow a lot of time.’
Apple co-founder Steve Jobs described himself as ‘a big believer in boredom… All the [technology] stuff is wonderful, but having nothing to do can be wonderful, too’.
In an interview with Wired, Jobs spoke about the endlessly boring summers of his youth. He said they had awakened his sense of curiosity as a child, and that ‘out of curiosity comes everything’. He also worried that the devices he had helped create were eliminating those underrated moments of boredom from our everyday lives.
This is something Zomorodi agrees with wholeheartedly. ‘[I]t’s destructive to fill all the cracks in our day with checking email, updating Twitter…,’ she writes. By filling every spare moment we are no longer giving ourselves a chance to process our thoughts or come up with our best ideas.
Endless daydreaming, however, is also not a good thing. Smallwood likens it to smartphone use: ‘Smartphones allow us to do all kinds of amazing things like contact people from great distances, but we can get trapped into devoting our entire life to them, That’s not the smartphone’s fault.’
The same goes for replaying mistakes over and over in your mind, or brooding over circumstances you can’t change.
So the next time you’re feeling bored, don’t look for distractions. Our natural inclination is to seek outside stimulation, says clinical and cognitive psychologist Professor John Eastwood, who’s been researching boredom for more than 10 years. But this, he says, is the worst thing you can do.
‘Like the trap of quicksand, such thrashing only serves to strengthen the grip of boredom by further alienating us from our desire and passion, which provide compass points for satisfying engagement with life.’ Instead, Eastwood and his research team recommend viewing boredom as a chance to ‘discover the possibility and content of one’s desires’.
‘By design, daydreaming is helpful to us when we’re stuck on a problem – personal, professional or otherwise,’ writes Zomorodi. ‘And boredom is one of the best catalysts to kick-start the process.’
‘DAYDREAMING IS HELPFUL TO US WHEN WE’RE STUCK ON A PROBLEM – PERSONAL, PROFESSIONAL OR OTHERWISE.’