Boredom and the Brain
Given how overstimulating our world has become (or perhaps because of it), we spend a surprising amount of time absolutely bored to tears. Maybe your wireless headphones died during a long flight and you are simply left to sit in silence, or perhaps your work meeting has just crept into its third hour with no end in sight. In these situations, you may feel your mind wander as you completely zone out from the task at hand, or, if you are like me, experience the extreme urge to jump out of your skin in search of a more interesting task. While scientists for years have endeavored to properly define boredom, its hallmark traits, and its potential causes, only recently have researchers looked at the brain activity correlated with boredom and some potential brain benefits of zoning out.
What is boredom and what are its hallmarks?
The earliest scientifically-driven definitions of boredom appear in the literature in the early 1900s, with multiple schools of thought theorizing on the sources of boredom in humans. More recently, however, there appears to be a consensus in the scientific literature to define boredom as, “the aversive experience of wanting, but being unable, to engage in satisfying activity” .
What are some psychological and behavioral traits that are consistently associated with feeling bored?
- Attentional failure
We just can’t continue to pay attention. Our attention may fail when a task is understimulating (What is 2+2?) or overstimulating (What are the physics behind a rocket launch?).
- Task-unrelated thoughts
We may find ourselves daydreaming or turning our attention inward instead of remaining on the external task at hand.
- Distorted perception of time
Bored people tend to overestimate how much time they spent in a certain situation (think: I have been in this meeting for 2 hours, but it feels like I have been here for 2 days). This might happen to allow us to signal to the brain regions that oversee our overall function that it’s time to switch tasks to something more satisfying.
- Issues with our sense of agency
Agency is the idea that you are in control of your own actions. One study indicates that subjects feel the most bored when completing a mandatory task, whereas subjects that chose to engage in the same task felt less bored completing it. When we can’t exercise our agency to leave a situation, we tend to experience more boredom.
- Lack of arousal
Arousal in this case simply means a state of excitement or alertness. People tend to report boredom as a low energy, low arousal state correlated with sleepiness .
Boredom’s effects on the body and brain
We can also look for physical signs of arousal driven by unconscious brain processes to determine how the body may be reacting to boredom. In the scientific literature on boredom, the most commonly used metrics of the body’s response are heart rate and electrodermal activity, which is electrical activity on the surface of the skin that is often simplified to mean the activity of sweat glands.
It may seem obvious to you that boredom would be associated with a very low physical arousal state (I swear that when I really zone out in a meeting, I feel my heart rate drop to absolutely zero). Surprisingly, however, this is almost never true in scientific studies on boredom, with high physical arousal being associated with boredom almost every time. This is particularly true for heart rate measurements . This high arousal state may explain the fidgety feeling we often get when we are desperate to get out of a boring situation.
But, what about the brain? Despite how mind-numbing boredom feels, our brains are never at rest. Recent studies have been the first to use measures of human brain activity during states of boredom to determine how our brains may produce or cope with those feelings. A challenge facing this type of research has been how to induce boredom in a laboratory setting. Because boredom is so subjective and personal, certain techniques used to induce boredom in one person may not work on others, or even the same person in different situations. A variety of techniques have been employed to induce feelings of boredom in the lab, from endless simple math problems and writing assignments to the viewing of wildly boring videos.
A pivotal 2018 research study  of brain activity during boredom went with the latter method. Study participants underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure blood flow patterns to certain parts of the brain as a proxy for increased brain activity while resting, being tasked with paying attention to a matrix of dots, or watching two different types of videos. While the “interest mood induction” video was a clip of a nature documentary, the “boring mood induction” video was minutes of two men hanging wet laundry on a drying rack (You may already think to yourself here how subjective boredom can be – while the men hanging laundry is probably pretty dull for everyone, some people may find a nature documentary mundane as well). Nonetheless, the participants indicated they were pretty bored and found their minds wandering during every brain scan except when viewing the nature documentary.
During the brain scans while the participants were resting, paying attention to the dots, or watching the men hang laundry (i.e. bored in each case), the researchers found an increase in the activity of a combination of brain areas known as the default mode network (DMN). This network is known from previous research to be the most active when we aren’t paying attention to the outside world and has been correlated with daydreaming and mind-wandering. This context may mean that the activity in the DMN that was captured in these participants represents introspection or daydreaming that results from being bored, not the cause of the boredom itself.
Additionally, the researchers found differing activity of a brain region called the insula between the different scans. The researchers explain that the insula is involved in detecting the salience of an event (i.e. is this new information my brain is receiving important and relevant to me?). While insula activity didn’t change during the resting scan which lacked salient incoming information, the same region was deactivated during the dot matrix and boring video scans. Although there was salient incoming information, the researchers think this could mean that the brain’s attempt at engaging with the boring material simply failed, which fits with our definition of “being unable to engage in satisfying activity.”
Can boredom be beneficial?
Now that you’ve learned more than you’d probably expected to about the science of boredom (which was not too boring, I hope), what are the consequences of boredom? Or perhaps the benefits?
Predictably to those that experience boredom often, there are a host of unfortunate side effects from excessive boredom. First, boredom is simply very unpleasant by definition. Especially in the age of technology when we can grab our nearest screen to stave off boredom, being alone with our thoughts can be downright painful. In one study of a small group of volunteers, 67% of the men elected to painfully shock themselves at least once during a 15 minute period, with some shocking themselves over and over, rather than sit alone in a room entertaining themselves .
On a longer timescale, boredom can lead to making mistakes at work due to lack of engagement and to falling back on bad habits. For instance, boredom proneness correlates with substance abuse in studies that asked subjects to complete questionnaires that would detect their inclination to boredom, as well as any history of substance abuse . Additionally, boredom was rated as a strong antecedent before bouts of binge eating by patients experiencing binge eating disorder . In schools, boredom has negative consequences on subsequent performance  and leads to poor academic outcomes .
On the other hand, some researchers believe that boredom might also provide us with some benefits. Boredom gives us the motivation to pursue new goals when the old ones are no longer to our benefit . It has been hypothesized that boredom provides our brains with a much needed break from constant information overload  and allows us to forget unimportant tasks and turn our attention to new salient information . Boredom may also paradoxically increase our creativity on subsequent tasks. One study  tasked participants with copying phone numbers out of a phone book for 15 minutes, then asked them to quickly list as many uses as they could think of for 2 styrofoam cups provided. The participants that felt their minds wandering during that phone book task were able to come up with more uses for the cups than others that didn’t copy the phone numbers first. While this represents a very specific laboratory assessment of creativity that we probably wouldn’t be running into in real life, it does suggest a promising function of boredom in our behavior.
The human brain performs very few of its functions by accident. While boredom feels unstimulating and mind-numbing, your brain is still very much hard at work signaling its intentions to move on to a new goal or to turn inwards as a reprieve from the current situation. Although we can’t always immediately switch to a new task, take solace in the fact that your being bored might actually be helping your brain relax and reset to take on what’s next.
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Cover Image Source: Wikimedia Commons
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