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Is boredom good for the brain?

Boredom can be defined as ‘the aversive experience of wanting, but being unable, to engage in satisfying activity.’ When feeling bored we tend to think what we’re doing isn’t very stimulating, but actually, boredom is all about the way our brain makes sense of situations, and the level of attention we engage with. [1]



Numerous studies link boredom to unhealthy behaviours such as bad driving, risky sex, taking drugs, drinking too much, and problem gambling. That’s not to mention comfort-eating our way through the tedium.

Boredom at work is propping up the confectionery industry!

In fact, many of us would rather take pain over boredom. One team of psychologists discovered that two-thirds of men and a quarter of women would rather self-administer electric shocks than sit alone with their thoughts for 15 minutes. Crikey! [2]


But is boredom really so terribly bad for us? Should we be looking for ways to relieve the intense frustration of having bob-all to do? Or can boredom actually lead to good things?


It’s important for brain health to let our minds be inactive from time to time. Scientists have found that the brain has a default network mode that is on when we’re bored, or our brain is understimulated. Having this mode switched on and allowing ourselves to drift into contemplation and daydreaming, can actually inspire creativity.

“If we don’t find stimulation externally, we look internally – visiting different places in our minds and making leaps of imagination.” Anna Sandford-James, Beingwell Psychologist

On the other hand, curiosity is one of our most important traits. Boredom can push us to explore new ideas, replenish our work mojo, stop ploughing the same old furrow, search for solutions, and provide an incubation period for bright ideas to be born. Perhaps the same search for an escape explains why some of us can turn to unhealthy behaviours – but the upside is that it can also increase innovation.


“The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.” Dorothy Parker

We could argue that boredom is neither positive nor negative, but a necessary part of the human experience.


So how can we embrace boredom without falling foul to downing two bottles of vino every day?


Accept it

The Italians have a name for it: “il dolce far niente”—the sweetness of doing nothing.


Rather than see boredom as something to be avoided at all costs, let’s take stock of the way Italians see it and welcome the down-time. We live in a world of 24/7 connectivity and our brains need time to slow down. Being bored gives us time out from the constant buzz of zoom meetings, work emails, status updates, dating apps, doom scrolling, and Instagram posts.

“You can escape the boredom of having nothing to do, by finding some new goals and activities, or, on the other hand, by starting to enjoy and recognise the benefits of 'doing nothing' without feeling bored.” Martina Ratto, Cognitive Scientist

When we pay attention to boredom it can get unbelievably interesting.


Find meaning

According to a study, boredom can inspire us to engage in more meaningful behaviours such as supporting charities, volunteering, donating blood, helping an elderly neighbour, and thinking of others. The researcher said;

"Boredom makes people long for different and purposeful activities, and as a result engage in more challenging and meaningful activities, turning towards what they perceive to be really meaningful in life."

The study found that boredom increases prosocial motivations that impact on positive behaviours that last far beyond the length of time of feeling bored. So, we get the positive benefits, and warm fuzzy feelings, long after our good deed. Happy days! [3]



Break the patterns

For some of us, being bored can mean we start to overthink, particularly for those of us who are ruminators, overthinkers, worriers, or catastrophic thinkers. This can lead to us feeling overwhelmed or becoming trapped in annoying circular thoughts. Getting out in nature to focus our minds on the present and on our experience rather than ruminating, can help.


Interestingly, research suggests that looking at nature can slow down our minds. According to one study natural environments are more restorative than urban settings, because they’re a source of fascination which can diminish our boredom and break patterns of unhelpful thinking. [4]


Einstein would go for long walks in nature and then create ‘thought experiments,’ working things out in his head. Who knew!?

 

Parting wisdom: Let’s slow down, embrace our boredom, spark new ideas, and do some good deeds. Maybe our boredom can even make us the next Einstein or Newton, who knows.


#thinkingwell #covidtoolkit #boredom #isbeingboredgood #cognition #brainpower #samntatlikas #martinaratto


References:

1. The Unengaged Mind: Defining Boredom in Terms of Attention (2012). Sage.

2. Just Think: The Challenges of the Disengaged Mind (2014). Science.

3. On boredom and social identity: a pragmatic meaning-regulation approach (2011). Pubmed.

4. New methods for assessing the fascinating nature of nature experiences (2013). PloS one.



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