In his book Boredom: A Lively History, an oxymoronic title if ever there was one, Peter Toohey argues that the eponymous feeling has plagued our species since ancient times. “Boredom is a universal experience, and it’s been felt in most eras,” says Toohey, a professor of Greek and Roman studies at the University of Calgary. As an example he cites medieval artwork and passages by the early Christian hermit Evagrius Ponticus, who lived ascetically in the desert and wrote extensively on boredom, though the word for his discontent had not yet been coined. It seems perfectly reasonable that even early hominids may have grown restless and impatient while waiting for their prey to wander within range of a well-thrown spear. The vulnerability to tedium may be stitched into our DNA.
As we all know, being bored can feel awful, as though the monotonous tick-tock of time is slowly eating your brain. This is why Candy Crush was invented. More seriously, it can signal depression, feeling cut off from the world. The Norwegian philosopher Lars Svendsen, in his book A Philosophy of Boredom, calls boredom “meaning withdrawal.” But in recent years, science, with a little extra time on its hands, has been poking around in boredom and surmising that it may not be a negative thing. It may be evolution’s way of saying, “Get out of the house and be creative.” It may be reminding us that to be human is to be connected to the world.
One theory, endorsed by renowned psychologist Robert Plutchik, is that boredom is an adaptive emotion, a feeling that evolved in our species because it conferred on us an advantage. Plutchik is most famous for theorizing the existence of eight basic emotions; the one that’s most closely related to boredom is, surprisingly, disgust. The advantages of feeling disgust are obvious: The smell of decay for instance protects us from eating spoiled, potentially dangerous food. Similarly, according to Plutchik, boredom may have evolved because it protects us from lethargy.
Plutchik’s theory is shared by University of Virginia psychologist Timothy Wilson, who, in a recent article in Science, demonstrated that “many [participants] preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves instead of being left alone with their thoughts.” When asked why people would rather intentionally hurt themselves than sit for 15 minutes in boredom, Wilson said, “If I had to speculate, I think the brain evolved in mammals to engage in the world. The whole point of having this big brain is to be able to search the environment for danger and opportunities and I think that’s something that human beings share—that we’re built to engage.”
All the advantages of having a huge brain come at a high energetic cost, though. Toohey proposes that situative boredom, like pain, is often protective, serving to spur us away from “repetitive and predictable experiences” and “situations of entrapment that it would be in our best interest to escape.”
Like a Ferrari stuck in first gear in Manhattan traffic, it seems our brains grow disgruntled when the energy used to run them goes to waste. Perhaps boredom is an evolutionary itch to give our brains enough gas to make them worth their high cost of upkeep.
Another, similar explanation for the reason we get bored is that our brains need exercise. This line of thinking seems to agree with a plethora of research suggesting that dementia and other cognitive disorders can be staved off, or at least delayed, by staying mentally active into life’s twilight years. An often-cited study in The Journal of the American Medical Association found that “frequent participation in cognitive activities” was associated with a 33-percent reduction (pdf) in Alzheimer’s disease risk. Research published recently in Neurology demonstrates that depression is not only associated with the development of dementia, but in fact causes it. And in his book The Brain That Changes Itself, psychiatrist Norman Doidge goes so far as to say, “Nothing speeds brain atrophy more than being immobilized in the same environment: the monotony undermines our dopamine and attention systems crucial to maintaining brain plasticity.” If our brains do need exercise, then perhaps the “mentally fried” feeling we get following extended periods of high cognitive expenditure is analogous to the January 3 soreness following an overly ambitious return to the gym.
The amount of energy required to run these thinking contraptions is astronomical. Like a Ferrari stuck in first gear in Manhattan traffic, it seems they grow disgruntled when all that energy goes to waste. Perhaps boredom is an evolutionary itch to give our brains enough gas to make them worth their high cost of upkeep.
Boredom, it seems, might be so universally despised because it’s indicative of an unhealthy mental state. But unlike, say, touching a hot stove, there may be reason linger in this kind of discomfort on occasion. Boredom allows our thoughts to wander. This is bad if you’re presenting the quarterly earnings report to your boss, operating a chainsaw, or disarming a bomb. But it turns out that a little mind-wandering is often good for creativity. Our brains are arranged in networks, and insight often occurs when seemingly disparate circuits are connected in a way we hadn’t previously realized, like realizing that Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” and U2’s “With or Without You” use the same progression of the same four chords. The thing is, it’s hard to make connections across networks when our field of focus is dialed in tightly on one particular subject. Boredom, and the mind-wandering it permits, allows us to zoom out and evaluate new information in a broader view. “Boredom pulls things out of their usual contexts,” says Svendsen. “It can open ways up for a new configuration of things, and therefore also for a new meaning, by virtue of the fact that it has already deprived things of meaning.”
This phenomenon is often observed in the shower. The shower would be a boring place if we had to stay there for very long. There’s nothing to read, no puzzles to solve, and no smartphones to fiddle with. Suddenly our minds are allowed to roam; the task-oriented centers in our brains power down and the subconscious is freed to bubble up into the periphery of our awareness. Suddenly: Is Hawaii the Aloha state because it’s abbreviated “HI”? The problem with this type of fluid, undirected thinking is that, almost by definition, you can’t try to do it. As soon as you buy a waterproof pen and paper, the profound insights stop coming. Like the bar of soap next to you, the tighter you try to hold one of these thoughts, the more likely it is to slip away.
To further complicate matters, it appears there are different types of daydreaming. Research from Jonathan Schooler at UC Santa Barbara suggests it makes a difference if we realize that our minds have started wandering. According to the research, subjects who recognized that they were daydreaming (a state called meta-awareness) showed increased creativity in their thoughts. Those who daydreamed without realizing it, didn’t. Forcing creative thoughts is as about as easy as forcing the ocean to produce a massive swell—but it seems that once we’re riding the wave, it helps to be aware of it.
If you think that a daydream, like a sleeping dream, would unravel once its existence is observed, then consider the phenomenon of lucid dreaming. During a lucid dream, people become aware that they are asleep and can influence, or even create, their dreamscapes, without waking up. Somewhere between wakeful consciousness and unconscious dreaming lies a narrow plane where creativity is nearly limitless. Schooler’s research hints, tantalizingly, that daydreaming with a touch of awareness affords similar possibilities.
In addition to opening the doors to insight about the world, boredom may also allow us to better understand ourselves. Introspection is difficult when we’re actively engaged with other people; it usually occurs in the moments when time ticks a bit more slowly, and the sound of our own breathing reminds us we’re alive. “For boredom is time’s invasion of your world system. It puts your life into perspective, and the net result is precisely insight and humility,” writes the poet Joseph Brodsky.
Boredom creeps up in quiet moments and forces us in on ourselves, inviting us to listen to our own thoughts. The temptation to drown ourselves out can be overwhelming, but a therapy of constant distraction risks sacrificing part of our humanity. Perhaps we should allow or—if it does not happen naturally—force ourselves to dip, periodically, into the lonely abyss of boredom, so that we might wrestle with perspective and our selves, and bring back some small insight greater than the results of an online quiz.
David Shultz is a freelance journalist covering biology and science of all sorts. He tweets at @dshultz14.