By Meeri Kim, Washington Post
In 2014, psychologists at the University of Virginia conducted a simple experiment to showcase the power of the human mind. They placed subjects in a room by themselves with no distractions for roughly 10 minutes, letting them be alone with their thoughts. Given the infinite possibilities that our imaginations hold, it aimed to promote the sheer pleasures we can derive from just thinking.
“We thought this would be great. People are so busy that it would give them a chance to slow down, sit quietly and daydream for a few minutes,” said Erin Westgate, a young graduate student at the time. “So we started running these studies, and they were complete failures.”
It turns out that people hated it. They found the experience so unpleasant, many of them preferred physical pain over the discomfort of boredom. When given the opportunity to self-administer a mild electric shock with a button, 67 percent of men and 25 percent of women pressed it at least once to help pass the time. One particularly miserable person shocked himself an incredible 190 times.
These unexpected — and somewhat disturbing — results motivated Westgate to devote her research career to the science of boredom. She wondered how a mundane, almost childlike state could prompt such surprisingly extreme behavior.
“People aren’t just more willing to hurt themselves when they’re bored. More recent work has shown that they’re more willing to hurt others and behave sadistically by docking other participants’ pay or grinding up bugs in a coffee grinder, if given the choice,” said Westgate, now an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Florida. “It’s terrible.”
Psychologists like Westgate are on a mission to unravel the mysteries of boredom, a little-studied yet universal human experience distinct from apathy or depression.
Boredom is a distressing emotional state that combines feelings of restlessness and lethargy, arising from situations that are no longer satisfying or stimulating. Early research often dismissed boredom as temporary and inconsequential, but recent work has established its links to mental illness, traumatic brain injury and dysfunctional behaviors such as reckless driving and substance abuse.
Some experts believe the feeling is a modern phenomenon, driven by technology and a constant overload of meaningless stimulation. But historical literature proves that even our counterparts in ancient times had the burden of tedium to bear.
The poet and philosopher Lucretius described the plight of the Roman rich in his most famous work, “On the Nature of Things,” as he flees from city house to country home to escape a lingering sense of dissatisfaction. In the fourth century, theologian Evagrius Ponticus warned his fellow monks about the “noonday demon,” a passing feeling of exhaustion and listlessness brought on by the monotony of life.
Early scientific studies focused on boredom in the workplace, particularly at jobs involving repetitive tasks. A 1926 paper in The British Medical Journal on the physical and mental effects of modern industry says, “Monotony and fatigue are two aspects of a problem that affects the happiness and health of hundreds of thousands of workers in our civilization.” Industrial psychologists of that era claimed that boredom led individuals to work more slowly, chatter among themselves and have a decreased rate of output.
More recent research has explored boredom as an inherent trait — known as boredom proneness — which has a whole host of negative associations. People who experience boredom more frequently and with greater intensity are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, gamble compulsively, binge-eat, drop out of school, drive recklessly and suffer from anxiety or depression. Studies conducted during the coronavirus pandemic also found that individuals high in boredom proneness had a greater tendency to break the rules of social distancing.
“There’s a distinction between in-the-moment feelings of boredom — what psychologists refer to as ‘state boredom’ — which isn’t good or bad,” said psychologist James Danckert at the University of Waterloo. “If you’re high in boredom proneness, however, there really aren’t any positives to be associated with that. It’s not good for your mental health to have this sort of chronic sense of being disengaged or disconnected with the world.”
A harrowing personal experience triggered Danckert’s fascination with boredom as a teenager in Australia.
His older brother, Paul, crashed his car into a tree, suffering a fairly severe traumatic brain injury (TBI). Even as his other injuries began to heal, something in Paul had shifted. Frustratingly, he no longer got any enjoyment out of drumming and other activities that he used to love — to him, they were downright boring.
When Danckert trained as a clinical neuropsychologist years later, he treated a number of young men who had head trauma similar to his brother’s. Out of curiosity, he asked them whether they experienced more boredom now than before the accident. Every single one of the men said yes.
“To me, that added up to something sort of organic that has changed in the brain, something that is making it more difficult for these individuals to engage effectively with the world,” he said. “I was fascinated by that and wanted to try to understand it more.”
In a 2013 study, Danckert discovered that the connection between brain injury and boredom went beyond mere anecdotal evidence. He surveyed 52 patients who had suffered either mild, moderate or severe TBI, finding that the presence and severity of head trauma predicted levels of boredom proneness.
The exact mechanism remains unclear, but Danckert suspects it might have something to do with damage to an area of the brain that helps represent value and reward. The orbitofrontal cortex, a part of the frontal lobe that sits just above your eye sockets, is commonly affected in TBI and known to be dysfunctional in patients with depression.
“It may be the case that, having damaged this area, things just don’t seem to have the same kind of value to patients,” Danckert said. “When things lose value or meaning, there’s a good chance that you will be bored by them.
Not all bad
But boredom isn’t all bad.
When experienced occasionally, state boredom has value as a signal that something needs to change. It has the power to motivate us to pursue new goals when the old ones aren’t meaningful anymore, and in this way, can help promote well-being. This kind of monotony-driven exploration and learning is seen in not only humans but also animals.
“In humans, teenagers are notorious for saying that they’re bored all the time. We see the same thing in animals, where adolescent animals take more risks and leave the family group,” said Charlotte Burn, associate professor in animal welfare and behavior science at the Royal Veterinary College. “The ability to feel boredom may actually prompt those useful behaviors that allow an animal to find new territory and food sources.”
Burn studies animal boredom — or rather, boredom-like behavior, since it has not been established that species other than humans truly get bored. She recently performed an experiment with laboratory ferrets, giving one group an hour of playtime for three consecutive days in a room with a ball pit, paper bags and a human to interact with. A control group of ferrets remained confined to their cages. On the fourth day, Burn and her colleagues observed that the ferrets who got playtime slept soundly while the control group spent more time lying awake with eyes open and screeching.
Other work has found that animals kept in barren environments seek novelty, even in the form of things they would normally avoid. A 2012 study on mink found that animals kept in impoverished cages were more likely to approach even negative stimuli such as air puffs and bobcat urine. They also ate more snacks and stayed awake but inactive for longer periods of time, as bored humans have been known to do. Animals have even been observed to drink alcohol and take amphetamines, if given the opportunity.
“Because the brain relies on stimulation to keep working and being effective, some of the synapses — the links in your brain — can literally start to break down and become inactive,” Burn said. “Animals kept in barren environments have physically lighter and smaller brains, and their learning ability is greatly affected.”
The negative consequences
Such results demonstrate that prolonged and inescapable boredom has serious negative consequences. Research on human prisoners in solitary confinement suggests that long-term boredom quickly advances into apathy, depression, cognitive disturbances, hallucinations and psychosis. Levels of self-harm and suicide, already much higher among prisoners than in the general population, increase even further for individuals placed in isolation.
“When you think about captivity for humans or animals, you’re preventing them from having the normal range of experiences they would have and autonomously engaging with the world,” Danckert said. “The human brain, and the mammalian brain more generally, is always looking for change and novelty. When we’re unable to have that, things go off the rails.”
But living creatures are resilient, and even in captivity, animals such as elephants and birds have been observed to use tools when they don’t normally in the wild — perhaps as a means of keeping themselves entertained. In humans, boredom in moderation can spark creativity, exploration and the pursuit of meaning. As long as the opportunity exists to act on it, boredom can be a positive force for change that pushes people out of their comfort zone.