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The Benefits of Boredom

Sledge, George W. Jr. MD

doi: 10.1097/01.COT.0000515953.93807.88


George W

George W

Usually it happens in some committee meeting, or an all-day conference. You've been there, I'm sure. A speaker gets up, and starts talking about a thoroughly uninteresting subject. Or maybe an interesting subject that he makes thoroughly uninteresting. He drones on, and on, and on, and at some point you cannot take it anymore. You are bored, painfully so, and you want to get up and run screaming out of the room, but of course you were bred for courtesy in the face of monotony. You drift into something approaching catatonia, eventually relieved by the shuffling of papers and the movement of chairs as those around you break for lunch. Life is short, and ennui has claimed more of your precious remaining hours.

What I find fascinating is that the concept of boredom is so new. The word did not exist in English until Charles Dickens published Bleak House (a novel where lawsuits drone on and on) in 1852. He must have loved the neologism, for he used the word six times. It caught on. But most languages now have a word for boredom: in French, ennui; in German, langeweile; in Dutch, verveling. I am sure boredom existed before 1852, just like the world had color before the invention of the color TV, but why no word for the concept? Did it require the repetitive motions of the Industrial Age, that 19th century phenomenon? Was the world more interesting then? The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there, as L.P. Hartley wrote.

Boredom has a (small, pretty boring) medical literature. There is, for instance, a Boredom Proneness Scale (BPS), which I refuse to bore you with, which allows one to quantitate your degree of boredom. The BPS is, I read with no particular enthusiasm, in the process of being replaced by the Multidimensional State Boredom Scale. You might think that confining boredom to just one dimension would be a good thing, but apparently not.

Defining boredom is problematic, though psychologists have tried. The best scientific definition comes down to something like “an unfulfilled desire for satisfying action.” Think of a caged lion, pacing back and forth for hours. Psychologists have defined four types of boredom: indifferent, calibrating, searching, and reactant. A recent advance in the field was to add a fifth type, apathetic boredom. Sometimes the researchers' ability to descend into self-parody is impressive: Can we make boredom studies more boring? Answer: yes, let's add apathetic boredom to the list.

Boredom researchers hold an annual conference at the University of Warsaw. I'll keep going to ASCO, thank you very much. There have been remarkably few boredom proneness studies inflicted on cancer patients. For what it's worth, treating terminal bored (terminally bored?) patients with the antidepressant citalopram makes them measurably less bored.

Boredom has been studied in several neurologic and psychologic disorders. Patients with anterograde amnesia, of the sort experienced by Drew Barrymore's character in the movie 50 First Dates, rarely get bored. Everything is always new. Alzheimer's disease, surprisingly, appears associated with staggering amounts of boredom, at least in the early stage of the disease. Boredom is associated with (in no particular order) drug addiction, compulsive gambling, eating disorders, depression, alcoholism, ADHD, and poor grades. Indeed, a drug addict's ability to beat his addiction appears related to his degree of boredom. Traumatic brain injury patients are easily bored. Auto accidents are more common among the bored, which of course leads to brain injury.

Speaking of injury, boredom is particularly a problem in the workplace. While some souls prefer mindless repetitive activity, most of us are not wired that way. Faced with the prospect of placing widget A in hole B for 8 straight hours, an assembly line worker may drift off, with dangerous medical consequences: boredom is a major underlying cause of workplace injury. I don't see this happening often in the medical clinic, though a colleague started snoring in the midst of a particularly boring patient interaction. I'm sure this happens all the time to analysts.

Boredom has been studied, after a fashion, in animals. I don't need an animal psychologist to understand that dogs get bored, as any time spent around a sad-looking basset hound will attest. I know it is unwise to project human emotions onto our canine friends, but dogs are so finely attuned to human emotions that it would be surprising if they did not recognize, and mirror, our boredom. I've seen dogs start yawning with their masters, and even vice versa. Cats go ka-ka if not continuously stimulated by their human servants. There's always a danger in anthropomorphizing animal behavior, of course, but pets and farm animals sure act bored on a regular basis.

From an evolutionary standpoint, boredom seems to require some relatively high level of intellectual functioning. We cannot interrogate Fido with a Boredom Proneness Scale, so there's a paucity of formal animal boredom studies. Researchers at the University of Guelph in Ontario published one interesting experiment in which they separated two groups of captive mink into either “enriched” or bare, sparse, boring cages. They then approached both groups with new stimuli, including ones that mink normally find scary. The mink from the unenriched cages were quicker to approach new objects, even the scary ones. Objectively speaking, they get bored and seek stimulation.

Boredom clearly has a developmental aspect. Anyone with kids recognizes the one or two-year-old's delight with the world, the absolute joy and sense of wonder they experience with every new thing. In contrast, teenagers are the world champions of boredom. Particularly around their parents and teachers, whom they seem to think were put on this earth to bore them to death. Older folks (well, my age) report lower levels of boredom. I'm so over that.

“Bored to death,” by the way, is literally true. The British Whitehall II study asked civil servants questions about the degree of boredom they experienced. Two decades later, the most bored civil servants experienced the highest death rates. Bored people are meaner, too: if asked to recommend a prison sentence for a criminal, bored pseudo-jurors recommend harsher punishments: “Throw the book at him, your honor, I'm suffering from ennui.” And people who are bored at the Department of Motor Vehicles are less likely to register as organ donors. On the other hand, since bored people are more likely to perform risky behaviors, they're more likely to become organ donors. Should transplant surgeons hold dance competitions at their local DMV? Or not? Public policy questions are always so tough.

Psychologists have started to scan the brains of the bored. They first have someone watch a video known to induce boredom, and then perform a functional MRI scan. The bored have specific changes in the default mode network area of the brain. To quote the 2016 paper in Experimental Brain Research, “Boredom represents a failure to engage executive control networks when faced with a monotonous task—in other words, when the task demands some level of engagement, but is so mundane that attempts to do so fail.”

Nice to know that my boredom has physiologic correlates. Usually, when I am in the midst of a boring all-day meeting, my mind wanders, often so far afield that new ideas start popping into my head. I scribble down notes: to do lists, ideas for blogs, research projects, you name it. Boredom, I suppose, can be the starting place for creativity. There is, of course, a literature attached to this phenomenon. If you randomize a group either to a boring task (copying phone numbers out of a telephone book) followed by a creative task (finding uses for plastic cups), or to the creative task without any preceding period of boredom, the induced boredom group is more creative.

Anyways, my attention is wandering, so I think I'll stop writing and go see that latest Hollywood big budget blow- 'em-up extravaganza. You know, the one where the aliens train a boredom ray on the earth and we're saved by a two-year-old who happens to have gotten ahold of a nuclear missile.

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