Boredom can lead to brilliance
In these days of lockdowns, self-isolation and social distancing, the “new norm” means most of us are staying home. Now that a few weeks have passed, many are complaining about being bored. My initial thought was, how could this be possible given the vast array of high-tech toys we have today? Before this crisis, everywhere I went, I saw people staring at their devices as they moved through the day (and night, in many cases). They seemed to be doing everything possible to keep from spending time alone just daydreaming. Is anybody ever bored today – even under current conditions? And if the answer is no, I wonder what we might be missing. Maybe it’s time to take a look and see how we can all benefit from this new situation while we are staying at home.
The medial temporal lobe, the medial prefrontal cortex and the posterior cingulate cortex, which make up the default mode network, are shut off when we focus on attention-demanding tasks. Conversely, they’re running at high speed in our autobiographical memory (our personal life experiences). When we allow ourselves to drift inward, we access our memories (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/memory), ponder the future, evaluate our social interactions and begin to reflect on who we really are. This “default mode” sounded exciting, so I set out to learn more about it.
I ran across an interesting article by Manoush Zomorodi based on her TED talk she gave in 2017. According to Zomorodi, who consulted with cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists, boredom can lead to brilliance. It can even help you succeed! She goes on to explain boredom lights up a network in your brain called the “default mode.” Curious to find out what that was, I continued to read about how our brains work in default mode. It turns out that while our bodies are on autopilot when we’re doing mundane tasks that require little thinking (at least that’s what we think), our brains continue to work hard.
Piecing things together
Sandi Mann, another boredom researcher, says: “Once you start daydreaming and allow your mind to really wander,” you start thinking a little bit beyond the conscious, a little bit into the subconscious, which allows sort of different connections to take place.” In other words, our brains start to connect different ideas and solve problems. Zomorodi calls this “autobiographical planning.” Autobiographical planning is when we review our lives, recognize significant moments, piece them together in a personal narrative, set personal goals and figure out how we can achieve them.
Depleting neural resources
If we’re constantly fiddling with our phones, checking emails or multitasking (not really possible), our brains can’t do this. Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin disagrees, however, and says that whenever we shift our attention from one thing to another, our brains flip a neurochemical switch that uses up nutrients in the brain to accomplish that activity. Consequently, when we think we’re multitasking, we’re really rapidly shifting between tasks, which depletes neural resources. Zomorodi recommends that everyone make time to space out. We’ve all heard sayings about “the dangers of idle minds,” but new findings indicate that boredom and solitude can provide the time we need to forge new connections in our brains.
Increased stress levels
Zomorodi quotes neuroscientists who’ve discovered that “the more we switch our attention, the higher our stress levels go.” Moreover, we seem to be mired in a struggle for our attention. An army of engineers is competing with our brains for our attention through a bevy of devices. And what’s worse, these engineers measure their success by the amount of time we spend fiddling with our devices! “On one side is a human being who’s just trying to get on with her prefrontal cortex, which is a million years old and in charge of regulating attention. That’s up against a thousand engineers on the other side of the screen, whose daily job is to break that and keep you scrolling on the infinite feed,” according to ex-Google designer Tristan Harris.(https://www.sciencefriday.com/articles/the-high-cost-of-notifications/).
Boredom can be productive
Other researchers have come to the same conclusions as Zomorodi. In an experiment at the University of Central Lancashire, psychologists asked volunteers to spend 15 minutes copying numbers out of a telephone directory. They were then asked how many uses they could find for a polystyrene cup. When compared with a group that had not done a similar “mind-numbing” task, it was the “bored” group that excelled. “Boredom at work has always been seen as something to be eliminated, but perhaps we should be embracing it to enhance our creativity,” the researchers concluded. (https://www.spring.org.uk/2014/06/being-bored-can-fire-up-your-creativity.php). So, to be more creative, space out and let your mind wander. And who knows where that could lead? Perhaps a great idea?
Will we be able to do this today? Can we cut down on the time we spend online or on our phones? Wellness trends are pointing to the value of being “disconnected” and just letting our minds wander. There’s growing evidence that this will lead to clarity and help us set goals. Maybe we should listen to Zomorodi, take a break and gaze out the window. Now that we all have so much time on our hands, we should take advantage of it. We just might become more productive and creative!