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