Why do we get bored? Photo: Flickr/CollegeDegrees360
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Familiarity breeds contempt: why do we get bored, and what is the point of boredom?

The science of being sick and tired.

A couple of years ago, I went to see Joanna Murray-Smith’s adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage (1973) at the St James Theatre in London. Like the TV series of the same name, the play was centred on the crumbling of a once happy marriage.

The production, though wondrously engaging and well-acted, really unsettled me. The couple were once very much in love with one another. Why did being with the same stimuli (each other) for a respectable amount of time (20 years) cause their psychology’s interest for one another to fade?

Did they just become bored of each other? Surely not – it seems too facile to blame it on boredom. Or perhaps I’m not giving the word "boredom" enough credit? 

Boredom manifests itself throughout our lives, right from infancy.

For example, collect all your hard-earned pennies to buy a baby a toy. Give the baby the toy. The baby, with the attention span of a squirrel, will be intrigued by the toy for five seconds. The baby will probably drop the toy and move on to the next intriguing item (most likely something hazardous). Give the baby the toy again and they’ll look at it for 1.5 seconds and drop it again. Give the baby the toy again and they’ll probably get pissed off and start to cry.

More examples: when your room, which your eyes have become accustomed to, looks dull and homogenous until something new is introduced, or when your wardrobe feels bland and you’re compelled to buy new clothes, or when you protect your new iPhone like a newborn baby until it starts to age, etc.

All of this is because of boredom, and it’s quite compelling.

“Boredom is extremely common,” Bill Griesar tells me, a behavioural neuroscientist of Washington State University Vancouver. “And it's found across cultures, so the pervasive nature of this experience suggests that it serves some critical role in behaviour.”

So, what is exactly is boredom? The Oxford dictionary describes it as: “Feeling weary and impatient because one is unoccupied or lacks interest in one’s current activity”.

For a feeling so common, it's surprising that the word first appeared written down in 1852, in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. In it, Lady Dedlock says she is “bored to death” with her marriage.

The late Robert Plutchik, a Professor Emeritus at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, created a “Wheel of Emotions” (extended in order of intensity) in 1980, and placed boredom after disgust, as a milder form of disgust:

Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions. Image: Robert Plutchik

Although boredom is essential for human development it’s been given a bad rap. “Boredom has traditionally been associated with a range of negative outcomes, both within the workplace and outside it,” Sandi Mann and Rebekah Cadman of the University of Central Lancashire write in their 2014 paper. Mann and Cadman examined the relationship between boredom and creative potential on a range of tasks in two studies.

In the first study, 80 eager volunteers visited their lab only to be given the dull, monotonous chore of copying out lengthy lists of telephone numbers, or to be excluded from it (this was the control group), followed by the creative task of thinking of as many possible uses for a pair of plastic cups.

In the second study, a further 90 volunteers were split into three groups, each group being assigned to various types of boring activities (copying numbers, reading the numbers, or being excused from the whole thing  again, a control), followed by a creative task.

“Results suggested that boring activities resulted in increased creativity and that boring reading activities lead to more creativity in some circumstances,” the authors write. 

Mann dubbed boredom as “the Cinderella of psychology”: “Boredom is neglected in psychology! Stress, etc, gets to go to the ball, but never boredom!” she tells me.

In a similar another study, researchers Karen Gasper and Brianna Middlewood of Pennsylvania State University found participants who were bored outperformed those who were relaxed, elated or distressed on creative tasks.

Griesar tells me that, as a graduate student, he was struck by how nicotine reduced subjective reports of boredom in non-smoking subjects, who had to complete a deadly dull computer-based task. These subjects reported much less boredom when on nicotine, a stimulant drug, delivered by patch (without knowing they were on the drug), while their physiological state of attentiveness (as measured by a electroencephalogram, or EEG, a test used to record brain activity), and their performance on the boring task, both improved. Most subjects even claimed to enjoy the computer task while on the drug.

In newer research on this topic, Colleen Merrifield and James Danckert of the University of Waterloo found boredom was linked to a faster heart rate and increased release of the stress hormone, cortisol, but lower skin conductance response to stimuli. In short: when you’re bored, you’re more stressed and alert – unmotivated by your surroundings, and perhaps less able to sustain attention on what’s at hand.

So, what is boredom for, exactly? Well, a recent paper examined that question in some detail.

Heather Lench of Texas A&M University and Shane Bench of Washington State University suggest that boredom motivates you to seek something new – some new goals or situations or stimuli that offer you a better chance for motivated engagement. From the paper, "By motivating desire for change from the current state, boredom increases opportunities to attain social, cognitive, emotional and experiential stimulation that could have been missed.”

So, is our level of boredom relative, depending on the country we’re in?

“So I've lived in the UK and Japan, and have definitely experienced culture shock in both places, which involves periods of boredom," Griesar tells me. "Perhaps all the new stimuli, including confusing and even occasionally upsetting social experiences, are novel and alerting  so you get a faster heart rate, and more stress. But effective, adaptive social responses aren’t yet so clear…  As new social skills are built, through direct social engagement), there are more opportunities to get productively involved in interesting, and less boring situations."

What’s the neuroscience behind boredom? Our brain’s motivational networks involve the release of a neurotransmitter called dopamine. Dopamine is reliably released in response to novel, unexpected, rewarding stimuli – and to stimuli that predict, based on past experience, the delivery of some reward.

“That new iPhone, toy, pair of shoes, etc, are both novel  they always offer exciting new features  and predict rewards, like a positive or envious social response from others, or perhaps a longer battery life, bigger screen, that you anticipate will make your life better or easier,” Griesar tells me. “But once you’ve got the shiny, new thing, your brain is on the lookout for additional opportunities. Dopamine release is linked to anticipation, and helps promote movement/behaviour towards obtaining that reward. And of course, the anticipation is often much better than that actual reward itself,” he adds.  

One of my favourites YouTubers, Michael Stevens, aka Vsauce, gives his own awesome take on boredom:

He concludes:

Boredom protects us. Monotonous speakers, mind-numbing tasks, and an overload of sameness – those things aren’t dirty or poisonous [like disgust, an emotion more intense than boredom], they’re just not stimulating enough. [Like the studies shown above] Boredom compels us to new [creative] things – fresh stimulation  and when it can be overcome, a propensity to boredom is a sign of a healthy mind […] So the next time you’re a little bored, be proud. Thank your ancestors – you are participating in a life-improving drive, like hunger or thirst that pushes us towards new and better things".

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Now listen to Tosin discussing the science behind boredom on the NS podcast:

 

Tosin Thompson writes about science and was the New Statesman's 2015 Wellcome Trust Scholar. 

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Forget fake news on Facebook – the real filter bubble is you

If people want to receive all their news from a single feed that reinforces their beliefs, there is little that can be done.

It’s Google that vaunts the absurdly optimistic motto “Don’t be evil”, but there are others of Silicon Valley’s techno-nabobs who have equally high-flown moral agendas. Step forward, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, who responded this week to the brouhaha surrounding his social media platform’s influence on the US presidential election thus: “We are all blessed to have the ability to make the world better, and we have the responsibility to do it. Let’s go work even harder.”

To which the only possible response – if you’re me – is: “No we aren’t, no we don’t, and I’m going back to my flowery bed to cultivate my garden of inanition.” I mean, where does this guy get off? It’s estimated that a single message from Facebook caused about 340,000 extra voters to pitch up at the polls for the 2010 US congressional elections – while the tech giant actually performed an “experiment”: showing either positive or negative news stories to hundreds of thousands of their members, and so rendering them happier or sadder.

In the past, Facebook employees curating the site’s “trending news” section were apparently told to squash stories that right-wingers might “like”, but in the run-up to the US election the brakes came off and all sorts of fraudulent clickbait was fed to the denizens of the virtual underworld, much – but not all of it – generated by spurious alt-right “news sites”.

Why? Because Facebook doesn’t view itself as a conventional news provider and has no rubric for fact-checking its news content: it can take up to 13 hours for stories about Hillary Clinton eating babies barbecued for her by Barack Obama to be taken down – and in that time Christ knows how many people will have not only given them credence, but also liked or shared them, so passing on the contagion. The result has been something digital analysts describe as a “filter bubble”, a sort of virtual helmet that drops down over your head and ensures that you receive only the sort of news you’re already fit to be imprinted with. Back in the days when everyone read the print edition of the New York Times this sort of manipulation was, it is argued, quite impossible; after all, the US media historically made a fetish of fact-checking, an editorial process that is pretty much unknown in our own press. Why, I’ve published short stories in American magazines and newspapers and had fact-checkers call me up to confirm the veracity of my flights of fancy. No, really.

In psychology, the process by which any given individual colludes in the creation of a personalised “filter bubble” is known as confirmation bias: we’re more inclined to believe the sort of things that validate what we want to believe – and by extension, surely, these are likely to be the sorts of beliefs we want to share with others. It seems to me that the big social media sites, while perhaps blowing up more and bigger filter bubbles, can scarcely be blamed for the confirmation bias. Nor – as yet – have they wreaked the sort of destruction on the world that has burst from the filter bubble known as “Western civilisation” – one that was blown into being by the New York Times, the BBC and all sorts of highly respected media outlets over many decades.

Societies that are both dominant and in the ascendant always imagine their belief systems and the values they enshrine are the best ones. You have only to switch on the radio and hear our politicians blithering on about how they’re going to get both bloodthirsty sides in the Syrian Civil War to behave like pacifist vegetarians in order to see the confirmation bias hard at work.

The Western belief – which has its roots in imperialism, but has bodied forth in the form of liberal humanism – that all is for the best in the world best described by the New York Times’s fact-checkers, is also a sort of filter bubble, haloing almost all of us in its shiny and translucent truth.

Religion? Obviously a good-news feed that many billions of the credulous rely on entirely. Science? Possibly the biggest filter bubble there is in the universe, and one that – if you believe Stephen Hawking – has been inflating since shortly before the Big Bang. After all, any scientific theory is just that: a series of observable (and potentially repeatable) regularities, a bubble of consistency we wander around in, perfectly at ease despite its obvious vulnerability to those little pricks, the unforeseen and the contingent. Let’s face it, what lies behind most people’s beliefs is not facts, but prejudices, and all this carping about algorithms is really the howling of a liberal elite whose own filter bubble has indeed been popped.

A television producer I know once joked that she was considering pitching a reality show to the networks to be called Daily Mail Hate Island. The conceit was that a group of ordinary Britons would be marooned on a desert island where the only news they’d have of the outside world would come in the form of the Daily Mail; viewers would find themselves riveted by watching these benighted folk descend into the barbarism of bigotry as they absorbed ever more factitious twaddle. But as I pointed out to this media innovator, we’re already marooned on Daily Mail Hate Island: it’s called Britain.

If people want to receive all their news from a single feed that constantly and consistently reinforces their beliefs, what are you going to do about it? The current argument is that Facebook’s algorithms reinforce political polarisation, but does anyone really believe better editing on the site will return our troubled present to some prelap­sarian past, let alone carry us forward into a brave new factual future? No, we’re all condemned to collude in the inflation of our own filter bubbles unless we actively seek to challenge every piece of received information, theory, or opinion. And what an exhausting business that would be . . . without the internet.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile