Boredom isn’t Boring

What does Boredom do to us? Image source:

We’re all VERY familiar with the feeling of ennui. That desire for mental stimulation but unable to think of or find any satisfactory activity. It’s something everyone experiences quite regularly, and since we’re so used to it you might be surprised to hear that the word “bored” only entered the English language in 1852. This was thanks to Charles Dickens, not because he bored people, but because he used it in his book “Bleak House” to describe how Lady Deadlock feelings about her marriage.

Well scientists have taken and interest! The study of boredom can actually be said to have officially begun in 1885, when Francis Galton published a short note in Nature titled “The Measure of Fidget”. This was an account of how a restless audience behaved during a scientific conference, but no ground-breaking conclusions or discoveries were made.

Just over a century passed with nothing really happening in the study of boredom. The area could be said to have become boring itself until Norman Sundberg and Richard Farmer of the University of Oregon published their “Boredom Proneness Scale (BPS)” in 1986. This was the first ever systematic way to measure boredom, and it involved a series of questions to determine how inclined a person was to the feeling of ennui. An article published in Nature earlier this month actually allows you to take the test.

However, the BPS has some widely acknowledge flaws, such as its inherent subjectivity and an inability to distinguish between trait and state boredom. These have actually be identified as two different things, with the former being a susceptibility to boredom and the latter being the level of intensity.

While scientists are still working on improving the BPS, there are already some alternatives like the “Multidimensional State Boredom Scale (MSBS)”. This is a big improvement as it attempts to determine how bored subjects feel at that moment, as opposed to asking about their habits and personality traits. However, one problem still remains in the study of boredom; a reliable technique for inducing it.

There are some rather obvious techniques like simply asking participants to do nothing for a period of time. This would certainly work for me, but it’s not particularly reliable since different people vary in how much their own thoughts can entertain them. Another horrifically dull and more reliable one involves clicking a mouse button to rotate a computer icon of a peg one quarter of a turn clockwise. Over. And. Over. AGAIN. Using techniques like these scientists are now reasonably well equipped to induce and determine a participant’s boredom, which means they can start studying what it actually does.

It seems to have both positive and negative effects on our minds and bodies, with there already been a number of studies on the matter. It has already been identified that boredom can push people towards self-destructive and unhealthy behaviour. A tendency to smoke, drink, and take drugs has already linked to levels of boredom, with a study involving South African youths showing a a noticeable influence on substance use. It has also been shown to increase the both the desire for and consumption of snack food, which has obvious risks.

But it’s not all bad! Boredom is also thought to enhance one of our most notable traits; our insatiable curiosity. Boredom could push us towards exploring new experiences and ideas, leading to an increase in innovation. You’ve probably found yourself doing something remarkably creative with very simple objects in an attempt to stop feeling bored. I once started making blu-tack sculptures.

The downside to this is that it can also push us to take more risks, some of which can end up hurting us. One study published in  a 2014 issue of Science revealed that, when given the option, people would opt to give themselves a small electric shock than be left alone with their thoughts for around 15 minutes. The amount of shocks they chose varied between men and women, but most went for between 0 and 9, with one particular thrill-seeking outlier shocking himself 190 times. They likely chose to do this since it was the only available way to break up the tedium, and this same desire could explain why bored people turn to unhealthy behaviours.

So where does the science go next? Well there are still improvements to be made in how it’s studied, mainly in further refining the various measuring techniques. It might also be worth studying brain structures and chemistry to see if there are notable differences in people who score high on boredom scales and those who don’t. This could also help to understand why boredom is often correlated with other mental states.

It’s unfortunate that it can cause so many unhealthy habits, but knowing that it can also make us more creative is a nice silver-lining. I think that should be something we embrace, utilising the boredom to push use to create new and exiting things. I think from now on I’ll try to use my boredom to come up with new subjects for my posts, or to find new ways to improve my writing. Imagine the things you could accomplish if you harnessed this creativity-booster.

Sources not mentioned in text:


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